By Trish Muntean, Fort Wainwright PAOAugust 19, 2010
FORT WAINWRIGHT, Alaska - The Fort Wainwright Fire Department dive team was activated Aug. 14 to assist with recovering a body from Eleanor Lake in Anaktuvuk Pass. It was reported that Dean Sheldon was water-skipping his snowmachine Aug. 13 across Eleanor Lake when it disappeared into the water, carrying Sheldon with it.
Local authorities contacted the Alaska State Troopers and requested assistance to recover the body. The AST advised them that they did not have those capabilities and contacted the FWFD for assistance.
Six members of the dive team, four of whom were off duty at the time, got the call around 8:30 a.m. They flew out on a chartered aircraft early Saturday afternoon. The charter and all expenses were paid by the Alaskan Native Corporation, said Charles Gibbs, deputy fire chief and dive team program manager.
"Our biggest challenge was to find a plane big enough to carry our people and our equipment," Gibbs said. "The equipment probably weighs more than the people who were going." After they arrived, the aircraft was unloaded and they were driven to the incident site.
When the team got to the lake they found the whole village waiting for them. "When we arrived they all stood around us and clapped and cheered. Every single person shook our hand and hugged us. All they could say was 'thanks for coming','" Gibbs said.
The dive team started their search shortly after landing. "They had already had lots of people in the water, with ARGOs and canoes and things trying to drag," Gibbs said. "We worked until it got dark."
Due to weight restrictions they were only able to bring a limited amount of equipment with them, which meant a limited number divers could be in the water at one time.
Oxygen bottles were refilled by the Anaktuvuk Fire Department, but could not be filled to capacity with the village's equipment.
Gibbs called back to Fort Wainwright that night and asked Fort Wainwright Fire Chief Russell Toms to send more equipment including tanks and fins. The equipment arrived the next morning on the first flight from Fairbanks.
"Once we got that equipment we were able to outfit all five divers so we could all be in the water at the same time," Gibbs said.
"The way we were doing it before, was two to four of us were in the water while one person stood and directed things. Once we got all five people in we came up with a plan to cover a lot of ground fairly easily."
It was hard to know where to search. "There were so many different stories about where he went under," Gibbs said. "The kids said it was here, adults were saying it is over here. People were seeing reflections under the water that were hundreds of yards away from where we were. So we really didn't have a concrete place to start looking. It was literally like trying to find the needle in the haystack. You just throw it and you don't know where it goes.
"The dive that we found him, we came up with a plan to stretch out 150 feet of rope and put divers at different intervals on the rope stretching across the lake," Gibbs said. "We all went to the bottom of the lake, dragging the rope across the bottom, hoping to find the snowmachine, because at least that would give us a point of reference of where to start looking."
Instead they found Sheldon, about 40 feet from the shore in about 10 feet of water. He was found in a spot that had been searched multiple times before. He was recovered from the lake and carried by the dive team underwater up to the shore where an ambulance was waiting.
The children had been sent away and the villagers surrounded the team as they carried Sheldon to the ambulance.
As the team left the site, Gibbs said that "everybody lined up along the beach and we walked by, had to shake hands and hug with every single person in the village." When they got back to their area and got their gear off "then they all came through again." Later that night, Sheldon's widow came to introduce herself and thank the team.
"Everybody just performed outstanding. It was very good team work," Gibbs said. "Awesome support by the folks in the village. There was no way we could have done that without the help of the people in the village itself. They cooked all of our meals for us, every time we turned around they were handing us water, Gatorade, food. They would bring food right to the dive site where we were set up. Very good people. Very helpful. Anything that we needed was ours to use.
"Without support from Col. (Timothy) Jones (Fort Wainwright garrison commander) and Mr. (Richard) Mauer (deputy to the garrison commander) and Mr. (Maurice) Fischer (director of Emergency Services) and Chief Toms, we wouldn't have been able to do this," Gibbs said. "Like the people in the village said 'you guys were the last hope, you were the only people who stepped up to the plate, that said we will come and help you.' I think in the long run, there is a new respect for Fort Wainwright, by the folks of Anaktuvuk Pass."