Two Brevig Mission travelers survive horrendous wind storm
A windstorm that pummeled Nome and the Bering Strait coast on Valentine’s Day afternoon miraculously spared the lives of two snowmachine travelers who left Brevig Mission at 2 p.m. for Nome. According to the weather service, winds howled at 41 mph around that time in Brevig and Teller. The two, Thomas Olanna, 34, and Brandon Tocktoo, 23, both set off on one snowmachine. According to Nome Volunteer Fire Department Chief Jim West Jr., who subsequently coordinated a search and rescue operation for them, the two set out to buy pizza in Nome for a family member’s birthday.
The wind picked up speed and by 5 p.m. the Teller weather station recorded winds at 65 mph and blowing snow reducing visibility down to half a mile by 7 p.m. In Nome, a white wall of blowing snow obscured anything past AC store and traffic on the Nome-Teller Highway came to a crawl as white out conditions blocked visibility past one’s car hood.
When the two Brevig men did not arrive in Nome, the Nome Alaska State Trooper post received a report at 9:06 p.m. of the overdue snowmachiners. Two men, on a single Polaris snowmachine traveling without extra fuel or food, was the word. The troopers got in touch with Nome Volunteer Fire Department’s Search and Rescue, but chief Jim West had to make the tough call to not send volunteers out that night. Winds gusting at 60 to 70 mph, presumably even harder at the known blowholes near the mountain called 3870 and Wooley Lagoon, would endanger the lives of the volunteers, West said.
Due to a lack of weather stations between Nome and Teller, no wind or weather data is available.
The next morning, NVFD volunteers gathered at Fire Hall and sent volunteers Kevin Knowlton, Kevin Bahnke and Ryan Martinson out to find the Brevig travelers. “We contacted the airlines as well, but that day, nobody flew to Teller, Brevig or Wales,” said West Jr.
The three searchers fought the winds and blowing snow and made it close to the Cripple River, about 20 miles from Nome before they encountered an impenetrable white wall. At that point they turned around and came back to Nome. Meanwhile, a group of rescuers had left Brevig Mission and made it to the Eldorado shelter cabin, but they also got turned around by the horrendous storm.
The Rescue Coordination Center authorized the use of a helicopter and the National Guard in Nome launched a Blackhawk helicopter with two Nome ambulance volunteers aboard to look for the men on Wednesday afternoon. The helicopter departed and made it as far as to Ten-Mile Hill near Teller, but they also were “knocked around” by the winds and did not make out any signs of the travelers. The next day, the same three Nome volunteers went out on their snowmachines to continue the search, while the National Guard launched the Blackhawk again, this time with three Nome Volunteer Ambulance members to resume the search. “At that point, we were prepared to find frozen bodies, we were prepared for the worst,” said West Jr. The ground team found the two missing snowmachiners at Jim Abott’s cabin on the Sinuk River. West said, the ground team heard tunes coming out of one the cabins, and smoke rising from the chimney. The lost travelers related to their rescuers that their snowmachine’s carburetor froze up near Livingston Creek and that they walked in the storm to find a shelter in a cabin on the Sinuk. During the ordeal, the young man’s feet and hands badly froze.
The Blackhawk helicopter was diverted to the Sinuk, landed near the bridge and took the two Brevig men to the Norton Sound Regional Hospital in Nome. According to West, the younger man, Brandon Tocktoo was immediately medivaced out of Nome for his frostbitten hands and feet. Thomas Olanna was treated in Nome for frostbite in the face.
West said that the men were not adequately dressed for the weather, wearing cotton, blue jeans, only minimal insulation and no heavy duty snowboots. He also said it is in general a bad idea for two people to travel on one snowmachine or fourwheeler. “If anything goes wrong, you’re better off traveling with another machine,” he said. West said that this incident is the third in a row where a couple of travelers chose only one machine to transport them. Just a few days before the Brevig Mission men’s rescue, the Nome Volunteer Fire Department was called to look for two people traveling on one snowmachine to Serpentine Hot Springs. They had a SPOT tracking device with them and pushed the Help button. The National Guard was flying their Blackhawk that day, loaded two Nome Fire Department Volunteers and found the pair with their stuck snowmachine at the end of the Kougarok Road. The rescuers helped them get their sled unstuck and they went to stay the night at a cabin at Quartz Creek before returning home to Nome.
In another incident, two men from White Mountain traveling on one fourwheeler to Nome get stuck in December. They also required to be rescued. West’s point: always travel in pairs or as a group on multiple snowmachines or fourwheelers. Tell people where you’re going, which route you are using and when your estimated time of arrival is. Also, check the weather and weather forecast before you go. Although there is no weather station between Nome and Teller, the National Weather Service issues advisories if there is weather brewing.
Other resources are a weather station at Johnson’s camp near Topkok, another known blowhole on the coastline towards White Mountain: http://ambcs.org/SiteViewer.shtml and select Johnson’s Camp from the menu. Another resource is a website called www.windytv.com, which details the windflow and speed.