Part of a continuing weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.
On Jan. 25, 1904, a massive explosion rocked the Allegheny Coal Company’s Harwick Mine north of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A planned detonation to expose a coal seam ignited methane and coal dust in the air. The blast was so massive it demolished a building above the mine shaft. A mule in the mine was launched up and out 300 feet from the mine. Of the 180 miners and staff in the mine at the time, only one survived, a badly burned 16-year-old boy. During the rescue attempt, poison gas killed two more individuals, Daniel Lyle and Selwyn Taylor.
Lyle and Taylor’s sacrifice inspired industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, and that same year he established the Carnegie Hero Fund to honor such civilian heroes. In their words, “The Carnegie Hero Fund awards the Carnegie Medal to individuals in the United States and Canada who risk their lives to an extraordinary degree saving or attempting to save the lives of others.” Fourteen individuals have been awarded Carnegie Medals for heroic acts in Anchorage, and here are their stories.
A full nine of the 14 awardees were honored for their actions in response to a single accident. On Aug. 3, 1951, Air Force Lt. Donald Seiler was attempting an emergency landing at the new International Airport when he crashed his F-94 Starfire into some swamp water about 1,000 feet east of the east-west runway. A witness told the Anchorage Daily Times, “He winged over attempting to head the plane into the wind before landing. That was the last we saw of him. The next thing we saw was a huge ball of fire, like a napalm bomb exploding.”
The jet hit a clump of trees and skipped across a small lake before crashing to a stop in a clearing. The severely injured and unconscious Seiler was trapped inside the still-intact cockpit. Rescuers converged on the site from multiple directions and pressed through the tall flames surrounding the wreckage. They cut Seiler free from his restraints and carried him to the nearby lake. Within two minutes, the remnants of the plane exploded, igniting its ordnance. Bullets screamed around them as Seiler was loaded onto a floatplane and flown to Lake Hood, where he received initial treatment before another flight back to Elmendorf Air Force Base.
The pilot suffered a concussion, burns and a broken back but recovered after six months. Air Force doctors noted that the care taken by the rescuers had prevented further injury. Seiler’s wife said, “My husband doesn’t remember the details of the crash, but when I told him he owes his life to the brave men who fought their way through fire and exploding bullets to pull him to safety, he said he wished he could shake their hands and personally thank them for what they did.”
Nine months later, the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission awarded medals to the nine rescuers: Herbert Enberg, Ward Gay, Kenneth Gerondale, Lloyd Miller, Walter Nagel, Joseph Parker, Daniel Parmenter, Charles Stowell and Fred Whitmire.
On Oct. 19, 1964, two oil tankers, the MV Sirrah and SS Santa Maria, collided off Point Woronzof. As the two ships ground against each other, sparks lit a massive fireball. The resultant tower of smoke was visible throughout Anchorage. Jack Price, a steward on the Sirrah, described the scene to the Daily News: “We were just getting ready to serve dinner when all of a sudden this ship’s bow struck us starboard. Almost instantly flames broke out — they were everywhere. We ran forward to try and fight the fire. The fire hoses were broken out, we had them going but it was no use. The flames came too fast.”
Near the tankers were two tugboats waiting to guide the ships into port. Husband and wife Jack and Lois Anderson were aboard one, the West Wind, and their son, Andy, captained the other, the Arctic Wind. Jack and Lois pulled the West Wind alongside the burning Sirrah and rescued 31 sailors. Meanwhile, Andy answered the call of the less-endangered Santa Maria.
Price recalled, “We ran to this boat alongside. It was a harbor boat of some kind skippered by a man, I think, called Anderson. We owe a lot to that guy. It took guts, and that’s the only way to put it, for him to hold that boat alongside. The fender on his bow was burning and we could have gone at any moment. Believe me, personally, I’d say we owe him our lives.”
Only one man died, a sailor from the Sirrah whose body was never found after presumably attempting to swim to shore. The rest survived largely thanks to the heroic efforts of the three Andersons. In 1966, each of the Andersons was awarded a Carnegie medal. For more details on the wreck and rescue, check out the 2021 article I wrote on the incident.
On Sept. 8, 1984, David Stokes, his four children, and Denise Ratcliff set out on a canoe onto Jewel Lake. The overloaded canoe lay low in the water, and the group struggled to direct in heavy winds. Then, around 100 yards from shore, the canoe capsized. They tried to grab ahold of the boat, but in the frigid water, they struggled to maintain their grasp on the rolling canoe.
Eighteen-year-old Kurt Gain and a friend were walking along the lakeside when they heard a loud sound. Said Gain, “I just heard this woman scream. I looked and saw this boat upside-down in the water, and three kids floating.” He leaped into the water, swam out to the canoe, and pulled two of the children back to shore. It took everything he had to reach land, his bare feet going numb and dragging in the mud.
A resident on the other side of the lake used his dinghy to rescue the father. Fast-arriving firefighters saved the other two children. Ratcliff, the only one in the group not wearing a life jacket, was recovered by scuba divers 30 minutes later. She died later that evening at Providence Hospital. Two years later, Gain was awarded a Carnegie Medal and $2,500.
Lastly, there was schoolteacher Jeff Harriman, acclaimed for his heroism in an incident more entrenched in recent memory. On May 7, 2001, Jason Pritchard entered Mountain View Elementary School with a fillet knife and slashed three children in line for breakfast. Then he headed for a classroom.
Harriman, a former bull rider, saw Pritchard in the hallways and followed him. Harriman told the Daily News, “I just reacted — something was wrong with our kids. Somebody needed to take care of them and take charge of the situation.” Pritchard grabbed another child and slashed his throat. Harriman rushed in and pushed him away from the boy. The teacher grabbed a plastic bin for a science kit and wielded it like a shield to defend the boy on the ground.
“It was a real funny feeling,” said Harriman. “After I got in the room and I committed myself — like your hand’s caught in the cookie jar. You know you’re in a situation that you have to go through on.” For a tense stretch of time, he fended off Pritchard and tried to reason with him before police arrived and disarmed the attacker.
All four kids survived. A year later, Harriman received his Carnegie medal and $3,500. Pritchard died in jail in 2019.
As bad as these tragedies were — jet crash, ship collision, drowning and school attack — they were also moments that revealed the best of people. All of these Carnegie award winners could have acted differently. The nine people who rescued Seiler from a burning plane could have rationally chosen not to risk their lives in flames and bullets. The three Andersons could have moved their tugs away from a ship that could have exploded. Gain could have turned back from the frigid water, as did another would-be rescuer. And Harriman could have reacted in any other way than charging headfirst at a man with a knife. Yet, they all acted selflessly to save others. Rejoice that this trait survives.
“2 Local Men Are Awarded Hero Medals.” Anchorage Daily Times, January 28, 1966, 12.
“9 Men Win Hero Awards.” Anchorage Daily Times, May 2, 1953, 1.
Broadt, Zach. “Harwick Mine Explosion.” University of Pittsburgh, Archives & Special Collections, 2007.
“Jet Pilot Rescuers May Get Citations.” Anchorage Daily Times, August 7, 1951, 1.
Mandak, Joe. “Anchorage Teacher Who Rescued Boy Honored by Carnegie Hero Commission.” Anchorage Daily News, December 19, 2002, A-1, A-5.
“Mission of the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission.” Carnegie Hero Fund.
Nightingale, Suzan. “Commission Rewards Young Alaskan’s Life-Saving Heroism.” Anchorage Daily News, May 7, 1986, C1.
O’Harra, Doug. “Bean Bag Gun Stuns Attacker.” Anchorage Daily News, May 9, 2001, B-1, B-5.
Perala, Andrew. “An Evening of Laughter Turns to Tragedy.” Anchorage Daily News, September 10, 1984, A-1, A--12.
“Rescuers Face Fire, Bullets to Save Pilot.” Anchorage Daily Times, August 4, 1951, 1.
Totten, Mary O. “Men of the ‘Santa Maria’ Tell Their Stories of Collision.” Anchorage Daily News, October 20, 1964, 2.
Totten, Mary O. “Tug Played Major Role in Rescue.” Anchorage Daily News, October 20, 1964, 1, 2.