Missing teens feared dead near St. Marys

James Halpin

The search for two teenagers who likely fell into a notoriously deadly hole in the ice at the confluence of the Yukon and Andreafsky rivers has become a body recovery mission, Alaska State Troopers said Monday.

Searchers have been dragging the bottom, setting hooks on long lines and stretching a fishing net across the water to prevent the bodies of Rondy Lamont, 17, and Matalena Tinker, 14, from slipping away from a section of river that has become known in recent years for remaining open in winter and swallowing unwary travelers.

"That hole has claimed six local residents," said Alaska Wildlife Trooper Dan Dahl, who is leading the search effort. "One body was actually recovered about three or four years later, but other than that, nothing has ever been found from that hole."

Rondy and Matalena, who were high school friends, disappeared last Wednesday night after leaving St. Marys on a snowmachine bound for their hometown, Pitkas Point. Along the way, blowing snow and wind likely disoriented them and put them off the trail, which may have been covered by new snow, Dahl said.

As they tried to find their way, the teens weaved through a patch of rough ice before finding a smooth patch and apparently reorienting themselves, he said. Tracks indicate they turned the snowmachine toward Pitkas Point. But the hole was directly in front of them.

When he heard they were missing, Matalena's uncle, Thomas Hart, went straight to the hole. He knew its dangers. And that it was along their path. On Thursday, Hart found a single glove -- Rondy's -- about 400 yards from the hole and snowmachine tracks disappearing at the water's edge.

"As I got closer to that hole, I just didn't want to believe that there was any kind of tracks going in there," Hart said in a telephone interview Monday. "There was a lot of stuff going through my head then. What I told (troopers) that I'd do is, I'd go on the lower side of the hole and see if there would be a trail, just in case they kind of made it across the hole and came out the other side. But I didn't see no trail."

It is all but certain the teens went into the river with their snowmachine, which also remains missing, troopers spokeswoman Beth Ipsen said. The hole is some 1,000 feet long and 600 feet wide, reaching depths of about 100 feet. The spot remains ice-free most every year because of the rivers churning together combined with the water's depth and fast current, Dahl said.

Rondy was an experienced rider who often made the trip to St. Marys, where he went to school, said his grandmother, Maureen Lamont. The hole is marked, and locals, including Rondy, know its dangers well, but blowing snow and darkness of night likely masked it from the teens, she said.

"It's been really hard," said Matalena's older brother, Gabriel Tinker, 17. "She'd always come to me when she was feeling down or want to talk and I would always be there to help her out and show her the way. She was a really good person."

Late last week, heavy snow and winds whipping at 35 mph hampered the search for the teens, but the weather cleared up Sunday, allowing three boats to get out on the water, Ipsen said. Between 30 and 50 searchers from the surrounding area, including Marshall, Pilot Point, St. Marys, Pitkas Point and Mountain Village, have been splitting their efforts along the rivers, Dahl said.

Some were dragging the open water with long line and hooks. Further downstream, auger holes dotted the ice, each containing lines and hooks to catch drifting bodies, Dahl said. Searchers had also used chain saws to cut trenches through the ice and were dragging for bodies in them, he said. A 300-foot king salmon net stretched across the river was serving as a last-ditch effort to keep the bodies from slipping away and depriving the families of closure, Dahl said.

"Their main concern is wanting to see her body," Hart said. "It's just kind of eating them up on the inside."

Find James Halpin online at adn.com/contact/jhalpin or call him at 257-4589.