Bethel brothers survive blizzard afer two nights in snow cave

casey.grove@adn.comJanuary 30, 2013 

Two teenage brothers from Bethel lost in a blizzard for two nights outside the Western Alaska city were rescued Wednesday and reported to be in good condition.

Phillip Charlie, 18, and Sam Charlie, 16, had Monday off from school and were hunting when the wind picked up, blowing snow and obscuring their vision, according to Bethel Search and Rescue.

They were apparently stranded when they ran out of gas on the way home, and despite a massive search effort Monday night and Tuesday, it wasn't until Wednesday morning that a military helicopter found the brothers walking on a lake west of Bethel, said the search group's Allen Joseph.

"They were in good condition," Joseph said. "They were well-dressed for the weather and holed up in a snow cave."

The Charlie brothers went hunting for ptarmigan after school was canceled Monday for wind chill of 45 below, Joseph said. They set out on a purple and black Polaris RMK 550 snowmachine about 1:30 p.m., the search group said on its website.

A blizzard kicked up, and the Charlie brothers had trouble seeing or navigating on their snowmachine, said Joseph, one of about 100 people working on the rescue effort by Wednesday. The brothers called their father, Ray Charlie, about 4 p.m. and said they were having trouble getting home, Joseph said. They said their gas tank was dry a few miles off the Atmautluak Trail, to Bethel's west. A team on snowmachines went out to look for them about 8:30 p.m., according to the search group.

But no one could find the brothers in the blowing snow that night. Tuesday morning, the missing teenagers called again and said they had dug a snow cave for shelter, Joseph said. The blizzard continued, but the boys stayed dry and were OK, he said.

The Charlies' cellphone company, GCI, told searchers the phone call was made within five miles of Atmautluak and Nunapitchuk, two villages on the tundra west of Bethel, Joseph said. Searchers scoured the area but were unable to find them or their snowmachine all day Tuesday, he said.

The last phone contact came about 3 p.m. that day, Joseph said. The wind continued to blow about 30 mph, and they had poor reception, he said.

"They were down to one bar on their cell phone and their battery was getting low," he said. "The weather was pretty bad."

Ground searchers and a Coast Guard C-130 with equipment to sense body temperature signatures and lock onto cell phone signals conducted a grid search in the area of the cell phone signal late Tuesday and early Wednesday without finding the brothers, according to Bethel Search and Rescue. Later Wednesday morning, an Era Aviation commercial plane spotted a snowmachine believed to be the brothers' Polaris west of Atmautluak, but it turned out not to be theirs, Joseph said. The search effort grew Wednesday to include Alaska State Troopers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife officers and an Alaska Air National Guard helicopter crew, Joseph said.

The weather had warmed to the 20s, with lighter wind and better visibility, Joseph said. It was about 10 a.m. when the two brothers were seen walking on a frozen lake called Nanbarnaq, he said.

According to the Alaska Air National Guard, a trooper in a plane first spotted the brothers. A Guard Black Hawk flying nearby picked up the boys. They were about a mile from where the previous searches occurred, Joseph said.

"They seem to be OK," he said.

The brothers were taken to a hospital in Bethel for a check up but appeared not to have any frostbite or severe hypothermia, Joseph said.

Reach Casey Grove at casey.grove@adn.com or 257-4589.

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