Airplane crash in Gambell, Alaska (St. Lawrence Island): August 30, 1975.
As some of you know, I was the pastor at Nome Community United Methodist Church from 1974-1981, a total of seven years. One of my first accomplishments (under the leadership of Presbyterian pastor Alice Green, serving at Savoonga, also on St. Lawrence Island) was the establishment of the Nome Presbyterian Church and the Aywaan Bering Sea Larger Parish. The Larger Parish included two Presbyterian Churches on St. Lawrence Island, at Gambell and Savoonga, located 140 miles and 170 miles out into the Bering Sea from Nome and 40 miles from Russia.
To assist me in relating to the people of that island, it was arranged for me to visit each community at least once each year. One of my visits was not pre-planned.
On a very foggy Saturday day on August 30, a Wein Flight F-27 airplane full of passengers (31 with a four-person crew) was attempting to land at the airport in Gambell. The plane had not been able to land for days, so the pilot was making an extra effort to land through the fog and rain.
In the course of making this attempt to land the airplane, the pilot made a very fatal error. He probably thought he was landing to the left of the Bering Sea waters, when in fact he was landing to the left of a small lake on the island, which was backed by 600 foot Mt. Sevuokuk (Gambell). When he learned of his error, he put on full power and attempted to miss the top of the mountain. He failed. The tail of the plane hit the top and the plane was flipped on its back as it crashed on top of the mountain.
This mountain contains an unique part of the Siberian Yupik culture in that traditionally people are buried on the slope, with whaling captains having the highest place of honor there. While hiking, it was not unusual to find bones and skulls among the rocks.
After the crash, there was silence on the mountain top. Soon there were several sounds: the moans of the injured, the crackling of deadly flames from fire and the prayers of one of the passengers, Estelle Oozevasuk. A state trooper in route with a magistrate to Gambell for a case regained consciousness. Some how he got out of his upside down seat and soon started tearing the airplane apart with his bare hands, attempting to save as many as possible. Some of the passengers had broken backs. When he was done, he had saved 19 passengers beside himself. Ten died and one young man, in shock, uninjured, had wandered off the mountain without helping anyone. He suffered greatly for that lapse in his response.
As word of the tragedy reached the outside world, I was asked to fly with a medical team in a small plane to the island to provide pastoral care. There was one extra seat. The church at Gambell was without a regular pastor, though a lay pastor was providing services. Even though I was scheduled to fly to Anchorage (500 miles away) on the following Monday in preparation for a major trip to the People’s Republic of China. I made arrangements for a replacement for myself on Sunday and departed for the island.
When I got there, this is what I found. The villagers had removed all survivors and all the deceased from the mountaintop. The crash site was less than half a mile from the village, but rugged terrain forced the rescuers to take the injured about five miles by land, around the back side of a cliff face. The survivors were ferried across a small lake and given emergency treatment at the village school. Every one had a note pinned to them detailing the known injuries.
When I arrived there were nineteen persons on stretchers. A Coast Guard supply plane had gotten word of the tragedy, striped itself of cargo, picked up a medic at a Loran Station and was going to provide airlift of nineteen victims to Nome or Anchorage. After I left Nome, fog came in and no one could land in Nome. The airplane had the range to take the victims to Anchorage, which they did, getting there at approximately midnight on the day of the crash.
After arriving in Gambell, I had just enough time to have a word of comfort and prayer for the stretcher patients as they were being tied into the airplane. Seeing that Coast guard C-130 take off was one of the most moving experiences of my life. For a long time, I got teary-eyed just thinking about it.
Then another type of work began. I went to the four homes that had experienced death that day, sharing prayer for the deceased. There were many images from that day.
-I went to one home where a woman had lost her husband, George Imergen. Her faith was so strong that she comforted those who came to comfort her. It was a powerful experience. Later she lost a son from freezing and a son-in-law in a car accident in Nome. Her faith never waivered. She was a remarkable woman.
-I went to the home of an elderly couple in their 80’s, Charles and Amy Slwooko, who had died of smoke inhalation, with no outward sign of damage to their bodies. They were members of the Nome Presbyterian Church and were making one last visit to Gambell. Thirty members of their extended family gathered to dress the bodies for burial from their children to their great-grandchildren. It was also a powerful experience.
-A young girl, Sharon Campbell, had died in the fire. I went to comfort the family and was able to comfort her mother. But the father stood outside the home, just glaring at me. He was very angry with God and I was there representing that God. We did not speak. He just glared. My heart ached for his pain. He glared a lot in subsequent years.
As the day wore on, I was under terrific pressure to stay and “bury the dead” in the traditional fashion of the village. Quickly! I was faced with an important decision: should I provide this pastoral service and risk losing the opportunity to go to China? I thought very hard about this and decided that the lay pastor Winfred Matuklook could provide this service just as well as I could. Most of the pressure to stay was coming from him. So I decided to go to China, if and when the next plane left for Nome.
As the night wore on, we learned that the Nome airport was “socked” in. After midnight, I was informed that we would prepare to return to Nome. Two other passengers were with me, the state trooper who rescued so many people and the young man who was not injured. The medical team had flown on to Anchorage in the larger plane.
I returned to Nome at 4 a.m. I slept until worship time, then crept into the balcony to hear my substitute, Rex Okakok, take care of the service. He did a wonderful job. Then I prepared to fly to Anchorage. Because I was gong in a day early for the flight to China, I had an extra day to visit the injured in the hospital.
When I arrived at the “native hospital”, where eighteen of the victims were being treated, I was welcomed with open arms by the staff. I was a bit surprised at how I was received and then I learned why. They had not informed any of the victims about the deaths of next of kin. So it became my sad duty, not only to have prayers for healing, but also to inform a young man (Isaac Kiyuklook, age 22), through an interpreter, that he no longer had a mother and a nephew. His mother Abigail (Daisy) Kiyuklook and her grandson, Franklin, Jr. had died. I also had to inform others of the loss of relatives.
My finest work that day was with the magistrate, Abner Gologergen. He had several broken bones. As I went into his room, he looked up at me with his arms and legs in traction and asked me this question: “What happened?” I took a deep breath and said, “Abner, you need to focus on your own healing. There will be time enough later to learn what happened. I do not want to share negative things. Now, do you really want to know what happened?” He thought a bit and said, “No, I will wait awhile”. He waited and he focused on healing and he was healed, thanks to modern medicine and rods inserted into his body. He was a wonderful man, both before and after his accident.
So I was gifted with the opportunity to minister directly to eighteen people twice in a period of eight hours as I did “the rounds” in that hospital. It was a profound experience for me. It was one of the most exhausting and stimulating and memorable experiences of my ministry. Then I went to China.
[Here are the names of some of those involved that were at the hospital (apologies for the spelling that may be incorrect): Isaac Kiyuklook (22 years of age); Merlys Oozeva (age 18); Abner Gologergen (broken leg and hip); Estelle Oozevasuk; Jerry Kanooka (age 8), Lena Malewootkuk (age 8), Laura Malewootkuk (older than Lena), Woodrow Malewootkuk (age 43), Gerald Kanooka (age 35), Harry Koozaata, Evelyn Koozaata (age 46), Bryan Koozaata (age 8), Karen Booshu (teenager), Esther Slwooko (age 17, Kenny James (young adult) and Ennis Apatiki (age 20)]
The woman who prayed, Estelle Oozavasuk, also eventually healed of her broken bones and when she worshipped with us at the Nome Presbyterian Church in route back to Gambell, it was a real day of celebration. She sat in a chair and moved to some dancing music that we were sharing that evening. she couldn’t walk, but she could move her limbs and she could praise God.
Eventually the entire village of Gambell was recognized for the skill and care they gave to the injured people. Trooper Gilbert Pelowook was recognized as a hero.
And I have struggled with the theology of death and dying ever since. When I read a newspaper article that God takes people away from us in accidents, I remember Sharon Campbell’s father glaring at me and I understand why people think like they do. Does what gives some people comfort cause others pain? God did not cause that plane to hit that mountain, but many believe it to be so. If I believed that God operated that way, I might have joined the father in some creative glaring.
One of Charles and Amy’s adult daughter looked at the mountain and said: “God is sending us a message. If we don’t get right with God, more tragedies will happen to this village.” I tried to challenge that theology. I was unable to change that theology. Should I have worked harder to change it?
God didn’t send the plane into the hill above Gambell, Alaska. Good things come from such tragedies and we can be grateful for that reality, but let’s not give God the credit or the blame for the tragedies. We can be grateful for the way in which many of the villagers and the trooper responded to the tragedy. And with improvements in air safety, it has not happened again. May it never happen again.