Originally published July 16, 1988.
The tide rose around young Adeana Dickison as Trooper Mike Opalka strained to free her from the mud of Turnagain Arm that had imprisoned her leg in a concrete-like grip.
“I talked to her, told her everything was going to be all right, we were going to get her out of there.”
The frigid, murky water had reached her chest.
He pulled and pulled with the help of paramedics, but the 38-degree water sapped their strength. The water covered her head.
“I was holding onto her as she drowned. I’m hanging onto her and I had to let go. I had no feeling in my arms, in my hands. I just had to let go,” he said. “She was alive, conscious. There was nothing we could do.”
It wasn’t until after the swift tide had come and gone that Dickison‘s body was released Friday afternoon by local firefighters using a high-powered hose to wash it from the dense, fine-grained muck.
The 18-year-old woman became mired on the mudflats near Ingram Creek, about 45 miles south of Anchorage, early Friday morning and drowned in the incoming tide.Her husband, Jay, who watched helplessly as the water covered her head, was treated for mild hypothermia by paramedics.
The couple had headed out on the tidal flats early Friday, driving a four- wheel all-terrain vehicle and pulling a trailer full of gold-dredging equipment. Alaska State Troopers said they planned to go to Spokane or Seattle creeks, popular spots for placer mining.
They were newly arrived from Dayton, Nev., according to troopers; their silver pickup truck still bears Nevada plates. The couple had been married about a month and lived in Eagle River.
But they ventured into one of the most treacherous regions of the state, a place so deceptive that one moment it seems as solid as an asphalt highway and the next it feels like Jello pudding.
The Dickisons tried to cross a tidal slough that meanders through the flats and, according to accounts by the rescue crews, the four-wheeler became stuck in the mud. Adeana Dickison apparently began pushing from behind, straining to move the vehicle and in the process worked her leg into the muck.
“I have a hunch they just didn’t have enough respect for the environment and what this country will do to you,” Opalka said.
The quagmire action of the mudflats in Turnagain and Knik arms is legendary. The Alaska Milepost warns travelers: “CAUTION: Do not go out on the mud flats at low tide. The incoming tide creates a quicksand effect and is very dangerous.”
“It’s not very forgiving,” said trooper Investigator Mark Stewart. “People need to know to stay the heck out of here - it’s treacherous.”
Jay Dickison told rescuers he tried for three hours to free his wife. Finally, shortly before 8 a.m., he ran to the highway and asked a group of motorists from Minnesota for assistance. One couple joined him and another man went to the Tidewater Cafe at Portage to call for help. Opalka is stationed in Girdwood.
“I got the call about 7:52,” Opalka quietly recalled Friday evening. “I called the fire department and told them to get on down there. I walked on ahead to see what kind of situation we had.”
When he arrived, Jay Dickison and the tourists were working with her.
Opalka walked back toward the firefighters who were just arriving at the site, about a half-mile from the highway.
“By the time I got back, the water had risen to her face,” Opalka said. “It was obvious it was a dire emergency.”
He took a piece of hose from the mining equipment and gave it to her, hoping she would use it to breathe as the water climbed over her head. By that time, several firefighters were helping him pull on her. Adeana Dickison was screaming with panic. The tide was rushing through the channel, ice-cold and moving fast as a river.
“It was inundating everybody,” Opalka said. “By that time it was over her head - she was breathing through the tube. I had ahold of her legs, her armpits, anything.”
Then she lost the tube. And Opalka had lost his strength.
Michael Polzin, a volunteer fireman from Girdwood, was also in the water trying to free Dickison.
“I couldn’t believe (Opalka’s) stamina out there. My hands turned white. I could barely get a rope around her,” Polzin said.
“I pulled on her with all my might. Mother Nature had her.”
The glacier streams that run into Turnagain Arm deposit ultra-fine gray silt that creates one of the world’s scariest human traps. When the tide is low, the mud is solid enough to walk on.
Once the water starts coming up, it turns soft and it is easy to get stuck. But when the mud closes in and the water rises, it solidifies again, acting like cement that has set.
The firemen had come with equipment especially designed for extricating people from south-central Alaska’s treacherous mudflats. A portable pump sends water through a fire hose at a high speed and has successfully washed people out of the mud in the past. But Friday, they arrived too late to help.
“We’ve got the equipment to get people out but we have to get there in time,” Chadwick said. “You got to have time to use it.”
By the time backup emergency crews, including divers, arrived from Anchorage, Dickison had been under water an hour. The spot where people had frantically worked to save her was a flat expanse of water, stretching across Turnagain Arm to Twentymile River.
There was nothing to do but wait until the tide receded.“At this point, all it’s going to be unfortunately is a body recovery,” Girdwood’s assistant fire chief Harold Rohling said.
As quickly as it came in, the tide went out, minute by minute exposing the tires of the overturned fourwheeler, the vehicle’s body, then Adeana Dickison’s shoulder
Paramedics returned and extricated her body about 2 p.m. Friday, using the pump and a shovel to move the mud.