The twin engine Cessna was only a few minutes from touchdown when members of St. Nicholas Orthodox Church began pouring out the door carrying roses, icons and portraits of Christ. As the procession made its way through the Aleut village of 90, others joined in. Women balanced babies on their hips and pushed strollers that clattered down the gravel road. There were Easter bonnets, polished shoes and daughters in frilly dresses, white lace anklets and matching hair bows.
The congregation was off to greet the most important religious leader to visit the village in years. Bishop Gregory Afonsky of Sitka and a contingent of priests were coming to help them cope with their sorrow and frustration over the oil spill in Prince William Sound.
State mental health workers visited towns and villages affected by the spill, but the people of Tatitlek didn't want counselors. What they wanted was to pray.
The plane was on final approach as the procession rounded a corner at the opposite end of the runway. From off in the distance came a sound that brought the procession to a halt. The people squinted down the airstrip, and saw the plane's tail pointed toward the sky.
"The plane has crashed!" someone screamed. "Oh, no. Not the bishop!"
The toll of the church bell gave way to the wail of a siren.
At the site of the crash, an emergency window popped out of the plane and dropped to the ground. One by one, men in long black robes hoisted themselves out of the opening and dropped to the ground. The villagers arrived teary and short of breath, greeting their visitors with hugs, kisses and trembling lips.
A brake on the plane had locked up on landing. Bishop Gregory blessed the pilot, then led the people clustered around him in a chorus of "Christ is Risen."
As gasoline poured from both fuel tanks, the people and their spiritual leaders turned their backs on the wreckage and walked in the direction of the church. The usual service of thanksgiving for a safe arrival took on an especially fervent tone.
The bishop's mission of hope, though scratched and a little bruised, had survived. And after spending last Wednesday and Thursday soothing the hearts of the people of Tatitlek, the bishop and his priests say these people, too, will survive their latest brush with tragedy the tragedy that came the day they woke up to hear the ocean was coated with oil.
The Exxon Valdez was about five miles from Tatitlek, on the northeastern coast of Prince William Sound, when it went aground March 24, spewing 11 million gallons of oil into the water. In the ensuing confusion and destruction, the people here wondered if this meant their way of life had been lost.
Gary Kompkoff, 34, the village council president, says almost every family in Tatitlek relies on commercial fishing, and all depend to varying degrees on subsistence foods. In Tatitlek, the closest thing to a grocery store is an ocean full of seafood and a forest stocked with game.
Tatitlek, the community closest to the spill site, was spared the full brunt of the disaster. Its beaches were not oiled, but an oil sheen did pass nearby.
"The mussels, clams, starfish, things were dying off and floating up on the beaches," Kompkoff said. "At the beginning, we didn't know how much was going to be impacted. It was hard to believe that the deer was going to be impacted. Or the bears."
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game, however, attributed the deaths of Tatitlek's shellfish to a winter cold spell, not the oil. That was met with some skepticism in the village. "We've had a lot of cold spells, but I've never seen it go like that," says village elder Illene Totemoff.
Last week, Tatitlek received some encouraging news. One set of shellfish samples taken from their beaches emerged from testing with no evidence of contamination. But conflicting waterquality tests undermine optimism.
"The tides come in and go out, and come in and go out," Kompkoff says. "They do their research one day and everything looks safe. But what about the tide coming in?
"There's frustration, uncertainty and fear a fear of what the future's going to bring."
Tatitlek, like many Prince William Sound villages, was established by Aleuts who were taken off Hinchenbrook Island in the 1700s by Russian fur traders and used to hunt sea mammals. Once the sea otters were depleted, the Aleuts were left behind, and eventually a group of them settled at the village site on the northern shore of Tatitlek Narrows.
Herring signal the arrival of spring here as they lay their roe on kelp and seaweed in the Narrows. Harvesting the spawn is something the people of Tatitlek look forward to after a long, hard winter. What they don't eat fresh or dipped in seal oil, they salt and freeze for the winter.
The herring came as usual this year, but the villagers stayed ashore. State officials had asked them not to harvest from the sea until testing could determine, once and for all, that it was safe. Instead of the traditional community seal roast on Easter Sunday, this year people ate hot dogs and hamburgers.
Exxon sent bargeloads of groceries to the village to make up for the subsistence foods people lost. Some villagers complained of stomachaches and diarrhea, which they blamed on eating too much steak, chicken, pork chops and other storebought food.
"Geesh, they sent cases and cases of chicken," Totemoff says. "We're not used to chicken. I told the teacher, I said, "If they bring any more chicken, I'm going to charter a plane and bring it up to Exxon and tell them to keep it.' "
A logging contract may soon make more jobs available to villagers. Cleanup jobs with Exxon, which is employing almost half the residents of Tatitlek, are creating a boom for now, Kompkoff says. But what about fishing next year? And the year after that?
"No one can envision what 11 million gallons means or what damage it's done," he says.
Some of the village children have their own ideas about what the oil spill means. "Just think, it's like they're taking all the fish and animals away from us," Jason Totemoff wrote at school. "I mean, it's so sad to see your life ahead of you drift away."
The village has changed. Since the accident, planes and helicopters keep coming and going. The people aren't used to outsiders. In this village, one sees doors "locked" by a loop of string.
Teacher Letty Swanson says two of her students had nightmares about people coming to hurt them. And she sees signs of separation anxiety in children whose parents are away scrubbing oily beaches and picking up dead birds.
Jenny Selanoff, 8, hasn't seen much of her parents lately. Her father is gone from the village, out working on an oil spill cleanup crew. Her mother, secretary for the village council, is putting in twice as many hours as she ever has. Jenny says she misses her parents.
"They're going through the same thing as me, I think," she says. "They hurt. They can see some of the animals they catch are getting oil on them. So they hurt, too. I'm not just the only one."
Jenny doesn't like the way the oil spill has changed her village. State officials, oil company representatives and reporters keep flying in to ask questions.
"They come out and in, and I'm tired of it," she says. "They interrupt us at school. They're always in a rush. I wish they would all go away."
Jenny's mother, Sandra Selanoff, worries about her children. She says they've become clingy.
"They want to be reassured and hugged constantly. My daughter is always grabbing me. She was pretty independent before. My son wants to be near me, too. I know it's been really hard on them.
"It's different than with fishing," she says. "Before, they always knew Dad was with their Uppa (grandfather). It's scary for them because they don't know where he's at.
"I constantly give them pep talks: "It will be over soon and Dad will be home and the oil will go away and everything will be back to normal.' But then you know I'm lying because I don't even know that myself."
North Pacific Rim, the nonprofit corporation for the Chugach people, sent flowers. A neighboring tribal council sent a heartfelt sympathy note. "They all want to help, but there's not much they can do," Kompkoff says.
The state Division of Mental Health sent representatives and a $600aday "disaster psychologist" from Kansas City to Tatitlek and other towns and villages affected by the spill to assess needs. In Tatitlek, where twothirds of the people are Orthodox, they requested a priest instead.
There's no question that people are frustrated, angry, depressed and anxious, says John Crowley, state mental health director for the Cordova area, whose work takes him to Tatitlek. That's to be expected. But he isn't anticipating an increase in clinical depression or other forms of mental illness. What he does expect to see is people who already have family and alcohol problems having increasing difficulties. In some places, after tragedies have occurred, domestic violence, alcohol abuse and similar problems have jumped as much as 300 percent, Crowley says. Typically, these kinds of affects don't become obvious for at least six months.
"At one time, several years back, (Tatitlek) had an alcohol problem," Crowley says. "Now it's a dry community. Do I know that people drink there? Of course I do. What will the longterm effects be? What do the people need? If I could answer all those questions, I'd deserve a gold star."
Crowley thinks the people's faith may be their best medicine. "I think the spiritual thing is very important," he says. "It will do a lot more for them. . . . Nobody's going to be running out of the house saying, "Oh, here come the mental health workers.' "
The visit by the churchmen, a trip paid for in part by Exxon, may signal the beginning of healing for Tatitlek.
In the village, the voices of the priests inside St. Nicholas Orthodox Church make a music far more powerful than the gulls echoing off the rock walls of Copper Mountain, which rises behind the village. Through singing and symbol, the men reenact the life of Christ.
When he speaks, the bishop encourages his people to be strong. He wants them to understand that the oil spill was not the will of God, but an act of human foolishness. He can't clear up their beautiful ocean, he says. But he can help clear their hearts and souls.
"You must all understand we love you, we respect you, and the church is behind you. We can pray and we can sympathize and we can suffer with you."
Publicly, the bishop is a pillar of strength. Privately, he's as outraged as anyone that a spill of this magnitude could happen.
"I just can't imagine it," he says over dinner, hands raised in exasperation.
By the end of Thursday's service the third since the bishop arrived the afternoon before the church windows were steamy and the air thick with the burning of incense. With Divine Liturgy, communion and confessions, this service lasted two hours.
How did the bishop find the people to be coping?
"With Native people, it is difficult to judge," the bishop says. "They are usually very reserved. They do not show their feelings very openly, either in sadness or in joy. They take life as it comes.
"These people live all their lives with hardship. In Alaska, a husband goes across the tundra and never returns, and they cope. The people know they can survive.
"What I see is resilience. I see they still have their humor, they still love, they still smile."
One thing mental health professionals and the churchmen agree on: Only time will make the human toll clear.
After the final service and a community potluck, it was almost time for the bishop and the priests to go. From Tatitlek they were to fly on to Chenega, where oil has washed up on beaches.
At the sound of a float plane's engine, the men in the black robes gathered up their luggage and headed for the beach. Those who followed received a final blessing.
"Goodbye, goodbye," the people said, waving. "Thank you for coming." As the plane taxied away, they turned and walked home in the drizzling rain.
The effect the visit had on the village was obvious even to those outside the church. Teacher Marc Swanson said he hasn't seen the people this happy in a long time.
"It gave them something to celebrate," he said. "The priests coming to the village did more for them than any psychologist could ever have done."
"I was so happy," Illene Totemoff says. "It was just what we needed."