In spite of everything, 2015 will be remembered as a good year in Sitka. It’s the year that the community’s faith, grit, and forward-thinking principles were put to the test. It’s the year that Sitkans forged tragedy, loss, and crisis into a renewed sense of purpose. It’s the year than many of us decided to try and lead better lives, for ourselves and others.
KCAW’s Robert Woolsey has this look back at 2015.
If you think I’m going to exaggerate the significance of 2015 you should think about this: The top story of 2014 was the Ice Bucket Challenge.
Sitka’s school board takes the Ice Bucket Challenge.
Yup. You had forgotten all about that.
Sitka’s 2015 will be memorable because our biggest stories were clustered together in a year that was already sprinkled with interesting news stories, like the state’s closing all its parks here, its goal-line stand against an invasive marine species called D-vex, the school district outsourcing Community Schools, the Sitka Softball team winning its 5th state championship in 6 years, or the Cross Country and Girls Basketball teams winning its first titles — ever. Go Wolves!
The epic news began on Monday August 17, when the Electric Department notified media that 30,000 gallons of diesel fuel had leaked from a storage tank at the Jarvis St. generator plant. Much of it had been recovered in a concrete containment structure designed for just this emergency. But an unknown amount — possibly as much as 7,000 gallons — had drained into a storm sewer that emptied into Jamestown Bay. (Note: This figure was subsequently revised down to 2,500 gallons.)
The state and city set up an incident command center to manage the situation, which would prove to be provident. The very next morning, Tuesday August 18, a sopping-wet storm system dropped down the outer coast and soaked Sitka with as much as 5 inches of rain in under six hours.
The deluge triggered 7 landslides on the Sitka road system, one of them sweeping through a new development on Kramer Avenue, destroying a house and killing two workers inside, the brothers Elmer and Ulises Diaz, age 24 and 25, and also taking the life of 62-year old William Stortz, Sitka’s building official.
Municipal engineer David Longtin and an excavator operator, Jerome Mahoskey, escaped. Longtin said they had very little time to react.
“We heard a rumbling. It didn’t immediately dawn on us what it was. We looked at each other with puzzled expressions and looked at the hill, and saw these 200-foot trees falling like dominoes — boom, boom, boom, one after another.”
The next day, Gov. Bill Walker flew to Sitka to personally assess the scene.
“I’ve been governor about nine months now and I’ve prided myself by saying I’ve never had a bad day. Well, I can’t say that anymore. This is a really tough day.”
And it would get tougher. Volunteers flooded the firehall with offers of assistance, but the threat of more rain forced officials to keep most everyone off the slope. And it soon became clear that there would be no rescue. Grace Harbor Church transformed into a 24-hour care center, for recovery workers, for families evacuated from the surrounding neighborhoods. Working in shifts, coaches and friends from their former high school baseball team found the bodies of Elmer and Ulises about 3 days after the slide. William’s body was finally found a week after, on August 25.
Seattle Fire Battalion Chief Thomas Richardson flew to Sitka to advise. His department had managed the slide in Oso, Washington, in March 2014, which claimed 43 lives.
“Yeah, it’s very similar. In fact it’s déjà vu.”
Then came the video. Over Halloween weekend a Sitka middle school teacher, Alexander Allison, posted a pair of videos on social media. One, of his own arrest as a bystander watching a DUI investigation, and a second showing then 18-year old Franklin Hoogendorn, a Mt. Edgecumbe High School student, being taken into custody by Sitka police, and being tasered multiple times as three officers subdued him in the local jail. The Hoogendorn video went viral.
Police chief Sheldon Schmitt said the video only told part of the story.
“What you’re seeing on the video is the culmination of a longer contact.”
Schmitt maintains that Hoogendorn was resisting — since the moment officers confronted him earlier in the evening outside a Sitka bar — and that the use of the taser conformed to police policies in place at the time of the arrest in September 2014.
Since the video went public, Hoogendorn has obtained legal counsel. His attorney, Myron Angstman, says the video tells its own story.
“It doesn’t really matter what I think the tape says, or what you think the tape says, or what the police chief thinks the tape says, or what the city manager thinks the tape says — because the jury has the final decision as to what that tape says.”
The conduct of the Sitka police officers is being reviewed by the FBI. The Sitka Tribe sent a letter formally asking the bureau to investigate possible racial bias in Sitka’s police department. At the request of media, Sitka released its police operating procedures manual, but the 342-page document doesn’t spell out guidelines for use of a taser. Top officers in the department held a town hall meeting with Tribal citizens to discuss concerns and ease tensions, but could not directly address the Hoogendorn incident since it appears headed to court.
The rest of the news in 2015 was lighter, but no less important. For example, the CEO of Sitka Community Hospital bolted. Well, technically Jeff Comer skipped town in 2014, but the news became public when he failed to show up for a meeting with the assembly on January 2.
Comer had been working in Sitka for less than three months. His abrupt departure, paired with a bizarre story of being attacked by an unidentified couple on a Sitka trail, left people more amused than worried.
Municipal attorney Robin Koutchak assured the hospital board that Comer would not be coming back.
“Ann, I think he’s gone. (Laughter) Elvis left the building.”
Sitka businessman Rob Allen later took the job of CEO, stabilizing the hospital’s finances, and possibly restoring sanity.
Sitka wrapped up the largest public works project in its history in 2015 – the $157-million Blue Lake Hydro expansion.
Electrical department engineer Dean Orbison was boosterish about the project for the two years it took to raise the dam and build a new powerhouse. But when he cut the ribbon in May, he didn’t seem to upset too take off his hard hat once and for all.
“This particular project, this success, and working together with this team is by far the pinnacle of my career. Which ends today!”
Another significant departure this year was John Straley’s. The former writer laureate of Alaska retired from a three-decade career as a criminal investigator, most recently for the Public Defender’s Office in Sitka. Straley drew on his work experience to write nine novels, which he says, had far more “moral certainty” than real life.
“Reality is always so much more complicated, with so much more gray area. And in stories, you always make it work out faster.”
As if to illustrate Straley’s point, the family of Lael Grant in June asked the state to issue her death certificate. The 33-year old mother of two went missing in 2012, with no ID in her possession, and no other means to travel off-island.
Her sister, Erika Burkhouse, believed Grant’s disappearance was connected to her involvement with Sitka’s drug culture. She didn’t want to give up hope, but the family needed to move on.
“I think she just got too far in, you know. She was in a really bad place after my dad passed away. So I would like to think so. She was a strong person, she really was. Those boys meant the world to her, and despite what was happening to her, and her unhealthy lifestyle, she still somehow managed to be a good mom.”
The state ruled Grant’s death a likely homicide. The case remains open and unsolved.
And life also made headlines in 2015. Early in the morning on June 10, the 80-foot fishing tender Kupreanof began taking on water offshore of Lituya Bay. An Air Station Sitka helicopter arrived on scene and found the Kupreanof about half-submerged in rough seas, with four men on board.
The helicopter commander, Chris Stoeckler, asked the crew to get in their life raft, but the Kupreanof radioed back, with a problem.
“I’ve got one man that’s pretty old and can’t swim.”
A rescue swimmer was lowered to assist all four men into a raft, and all were safely hoisted to the helicopter, just as the Kupreanof slipped under the waves. There is a video of this rescue available online that is more real than any reality television you’ll ever see, though it plays like another day at the office for the cool heads flying the helicopter.
Sitka hosted two major fisheries meetings this year, the State Board of Fisheries, and the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council. The meetings were filled with intense issues, but none more so than the Council’s deliberations over wasted halibut — or bycatch. The stakes are enormous for small-boat fishermen in the villages of Western Alaska. Member Duncan Fields was aggrieved when the rest of the council adopted bycatch limits favoring larger commercial interests.
“I acknowledge on a personal basis my identity with the folks living in Western Alaska, and their loss of economic opportunity, personal identity, and cultural legacy. I get it.”
Cultural legacy came into play in other news stories as well. This fall, Sitka’s Orthodox Cemetery was struck by three separate episodes of vandalism, where numerous headstones were tipped over. Bob Sam is the caretaker of the 200-year old cemetery, which holds the remains of mostly Alaska Natives.
“When you’re washing a headstone, it’s no different than washing somebody’s feet. You experience a kind of humility.”
Sam was nearing despair over the repeated vandalism, but help from the police department and cadets at the Sitka Trooper Academy helped restore his faith. After each incident, law enforcement personnel returned to the cemetery to raise the stones, some weighing hundreds of pounds. Sitka police later caught the culprits, a group of 8-10 year old children.
Another cultural rift was mended when the Alaska Day Committee was called out on its use of the name “Slave Auction” for an annual fundraiser at the Pioneer Bar. Pressure to drop the name came from the NAACP in Anchorage, in a press release issued on Alaska Day. In the auction, business owners agree to provide a service to a high bidder.
Event organizers felt that the otherwise benign, 31-year old event had been unfairly targeted. This is Mary Magnuson.
“This controversy frankly offends me a little bit, that people who know nothing about my community are pointing fingers and acting like we’re racist.”
The Sitka Tribe endorsed the NAACP’s position, saying “slave auction” was insensitive. The committee changed the name to “Alaska Day Auction,” and suggested that they would have welcomed a phone call from the NAACP, rather than a limelight.
There is cultural rift, and then there’s just culture.
Music: Cantina Band from Star Wars
On December 17, in Sitka and just about everywhere, fans flocked to the premiere of Episode VII of Star Wars. The intergalactic odyssey proved inter-generational, as parents stood in a line reaching toward St. Michael’s Cathedral to watch a film with their children, that they first saw as children themselves.
“This is probably the most important night of my life since I was 5 years old on Christmas Eve and watched Star Wars for the first time,” said one movie-goer.
And afterwards, on that evening and many others, Sitkans would get in their cars to drive to the corner of Kimsham and Wachusetts streets, to the home of Mike Romine, a Christmas light enthusiast and — for one month at least –probably Sitka’s best electrical customer.
Romine’s show has evolved over the past decade into something worthy of Vegas, but it isn’t heavy handed. As programmed lights climb a tower, they merge to form the words August 18, Elmer, Ulises, and Bill — the three Sitkans who perished in the landslide.
“I just knew that there were a lot of people that it affected. People just came together, it was a pretty big deal. And because I was thinking of them, most of Sitka probably was too. I think the families have appreciated it.”
Music: Wiz Khalifa’s See You Again.
And it’s been gestures like Mike Romine’s, large and small, bright and not so visible — too many to count, really — that turn a difficult year into a good one.
Let’s meet again in 2016. Happy New Year.