UNALASKA - An FBI team has set up shop this week on Ballyhoo Mountain to investigate the death of two high school students when a pickup truck rolled about 900 feet down a cliff to the rocky coast of the Bering Sea.
Unalaska Interim Police Chief John Lucking said 15 FBI personnel arrived Monday with drones to diagram the area and recover pieces of the shattered pickup for examination, especially electronics and gears.
The city public works department has erected tents as work spaces at Ulatka Head, while the city ports department’s small boat has been working just offshore of the cliff that the blue 2001 pickup went over on May 9.
The truck was operated by Dustan Ruckman, 18, who survived, while two of his fellow high school students died, Karly McDonald, 16, and Kiara Haist, 18.
According to police, “Ruckman claimed to have been thrown from the vehicle as it descended down a steep ravine with the two girls still inside. Ruckman reported that he was able to climb back to the road and ran down the east side of the mountain where he flagged down a passing motorist, who called 911.”
An FBI team assembled from various parts of the country flew to the Aleutians from Anchorage in a Coast Guard C-130 cargo plane, according to Lucking. He expects they will conclude their work by Friday.
Lucking said the steep cliff was “almost a sheer drop,” a big challenge for the local responders and the town’s lone state trooper. The first victim’s remains were recovered from the top of the Ulatka Head area on Ballyhoo, by mountaineers rappelling down the slope. The other was recovered from below, with the aid of responders walking around the rocky coastline, with the port department’s boat waiting offshore to transport the body back to land.
The bodies were brought to the local clinic for identification by family members, then flown to Anchorage for autopsies. Their cremated remains were returned to Unalaska and displayed at a memorial ceremony.
Lucking said the truck disintegrated in the descent, with the bed separating from the cab, while the engine landed in another location. “It’s just in a multitude of pieces strung all the way down the hill,” he said.
Ulatka Head, atop Ballyhoo Mountain facing north into the Bering Sea, is a historic site open to the public, the scene of old concrete bunkers and other military relics, and is an affiliate site of the National Park Service, on land owned by the Ounalashka Corp., commemorating World War II in the Aleutian Islands, bombed and occupied by Japanese forces in the 1940s.
At the time of the crash, the public had only recently started driving up the zigzagging, unpaved route to the site for the season, after the city graded the ruts.
Unalaska City School Superintendent John Conwell said the three students had left for lunch, which runs from 12:25 p.m. to 1:10 p.m., from the high school under its open campus policy.
The accident was reported at 1:30 p.m., according to police. Conwell reported a scene of emotional devastation at the school, and counselors were called in to help grief-stricken students and staff.
Jim Paulin can be reached at email@example.com.