Two adults and a child died after a snowmachine broke through river ice and in the attempted rescue that followed, as they traveled in a group between Kotzebue and the village of Noatak Sunday, Alaska State Troopers said.
The deceased are Jan Westlake, 36, Amber Westlake, 31, and Alexandria Howarth, 11, said Megan Peters, a trooper spokeswoman. Residents from the village said the Westlakes were husband and wife, and Alexandria was their niece.
The deaths add to a grim toll for Alaskans traveling on river ice this spring, which has been the warmest on record in many parts of the state. Five people have died in the Bethel region since early March after falling through ice.
The latest accident occurred on the Noatak River a few miles south of the village, said David Mills, a village resident who responded to the scene. About 570 people live in Noatak.
Four snowmachines were traveling together, returning from a weekend snowmachine race in Kotzebue, he said. One of the people traveling with the Westlakes rode to the village and notified the search and rescue, who in turn notified troopers early Monday morning, troopers said.
The troopers on Monday had initially reported that two snowmachines broke through the ice. But following further investigation, the agency on Tuesday said that one snowmachine had crashed through. Jan Westlake apparently died after he tried rescuing the other two.
“At this point, it is believed that Jan made it across on his snowmachine,” said Megan Peters, a Troopers spokeswoman. “When he realized the other snowmachine went in, he attempted to save the two in the water.”
Mark Moore, the director of planning for the tribal government in Noatak, said the deaths were a heavy blow for the village.
“This is an extremely sad and devastating thing,” Moore said. “These were young, vibrant and decent people.”
Mills said Jan Westlake was a mechanic while Amber worked at the clinic. Alexandra, or Aly, was a sixth-grade student.
“People are taking it pretty hard here,” he said.
Mills was among about 30 people who responded to help search for victims, he said.
The weather was very warm in the region last week, he said. The unseasonable temperatures softened and opened the river in spots before cooler weather began moving back in, Mills said.
“Some places started to refreeze over, but they weren’t thick enough,” he said.