Alaska News

Accidents heighten rescue teams' awareness of tides deadly force

One week after a young woman drowned on the Turnagain Arm mud flats, Wasilla paramedics were awakened by an emergency call. A woman had been dipnetting at the mouth of Fish Creek and she was stuck in the mud.

As the Matanuska-Susitna Borough divers hit the road in their rescue van, they were remembering the tragedy of 18-year-old Adeana Dickison, who died the way nobody should have to die. She stood helplessly with one leg buried to the knee in glacial silt as the tide immersed her in 38degree water.

"We were saying, "Oh boy, not here, not now,' " recalled Bob Hancock, leader of the MatSu dive rescue team. "That was definitely the main thing that was on our minds."

TX: This time, though, companions had pulled the woman out of her hip boots which were held fast by the mud before the rescuers arrived. When Hancock and his team got to Fish Creek, she was warming herself by a fire.

Such predicaments occur so infrequently that no one knows exactly why they happen or how to rescue someone hopelessly stuck.

In the past three decades, at least three people have drowned after sinking into the ooze of Knik or Turnagain arms. An unknown number of duck hunters, clammers and others who ventured out on the mudflats have been pulled out, some in dramatic rescues that illustrate just how treacherous and unforgiving the glacial silt can be.

Nothing illustrates that better than the death of Adeana Dickison. Early on the morning of July 15, she and her husband drove a fourwheel allterrain vehicle down a trail near Ingram Creek, just south of Portage. They planned to mine for placer gold in a nearby creek. The tide was low and they began to cross the broad, gray, rippled mudflats.


The fourwheeler got stuck in a deep tidal slough. It's not clear what happened next, but Dickison and her husband, Jay, apparently tried to push it and in the process, she became mired in the mud herself.

The couple had a dredge for placer mining and Jay Dickison used it to pump the mud away and free one of his wife's legs, according to Harold Rohling, assistant chief of the Girdwood Volunteer Fire Department. Before he could get the other leg out, a belt on the dredge slipped.

"I don't know if that's when he went for help or tried to dig her out some more," Rohling said. "They just didn't know that, "Hey, this is going to be full of water in a few minutes.' "

By then, the tide was coming in, filling the slough with icy, glacier runoff. Jay Dickison found some tourists and one drove up to the Tidewater Cafe at Portage to call for help. The call was received at 7:53 a.m. and Jay Dickison later told rescuers he had been trying to free his wife for two or three hours.

Alaska State Trooper Mike Opalka arrived at the scene first. He ran across the flats to where Adeana Dickison was trapped and assured her that the rescuers would get her out. The tide was at her chest and she was panic stricken.

Opalka and paramedics fought against the mud, the rushing water and the cold to free her. She begged them to save her. Opalka gave her a tube to breathe through as the water covered her head but she was suffering from hypothermia and unable to hold it for long.

The rescuers finally had to give up. They couldn't pull her loose and they were numb with cold. Six hours later they retrieved the body, one leg still firmly trapped.

What is it that makes the mudflats of Cook Inlet so unpredictable and so dangerous? Geologist Susan Winkler of the United States Geological Survey said it is the unique character of the grains of silt that are washed down from surrounding glaciers.

Winkler, who recently transferred to the USGS Denver branch, spent several years studying Cook Inlet sediments.

"The grains are highly angular. When they're deposited, they're in contact with each other in a delicate balance," she explained. "When you step on it, you cause it to become more mobile. Then, when it resettles after you've disturbed it, it tends to be more compacted around your foot. The grains are so angular that they're just locked together.

"You have these grains that are just balanced and they have lots of water between the grains. When you disturb it, the grains rearrange themselves and the water flows out and when they rearrange, they're more compact."

Tidal channels, like the one where Adeana Dickison died, are the most dangerous places because the mud is more highly saturated with water, she said.

"Of course, when the tide comes in, it comes in the channels faster." Cook Inlet sees the second largest tides in North America, with a range of nearly 40 feet.

Winkler had a frightening brush with the quicksand effect of the mudflats during her research. A helicopter had dropped her in the middle of Turnagain Arm where she was taking measurements.

"All of a sudden it liquified," she said. "The surface was just like a water bed. It just waved. An area of 20 feet all around me had liquified. I had been walking for a minute or two. All of a sudden, whatever I did, it just went." She was lifted off the quagmire by the helicopter.

Some tales of successful and unsuccessful mudflats rescues have worked their way into the local mythology.

Many have heard the story of the duck hunter who was stuck in the mud on either Knik or Turnagain arm, in the 1960s or 1970s, depending on who tells it, and was pulled in half by a helicopter, leaving the lower half of his body in the mud. Some locals remember the incident vividly.


There is no evidence it ever happened, but the story has become an Alaska legend.

Hancock, the diver, said the story may be based on a rescue attempt on Turnagain Arm in the late '60s. As a young firefighter with the Girdwood fire department, he remembers hearing about a hunter who drowned when rescuers were unable to free him. A helicopter may have been involved, he said.

On Sept. 17, 1961, a 33yearold Fort Richardson soldier named Roger Cashin drowned when the tide washed over him after he had been trapped in the mud of a tidal slough near the Knik River. According to an interview with one of the rescuers, published in The Anchorage Times in 1981, the barrel of his shotgun was removed and held for him to breathe through, but he was panicked and eventually drowned.

The next day, the story reported, a recovery crew tied a rope around him and a helicopter tried to pull him out. The rope broke from the strain, possibly giving rise to the legend.

Tony Chain of Anchorage was rescued from a Knik River slough by an Army helicopter crew on Sept. 1, 1981. Like Cashin, he was out for a day of duck hunting. And he'd hunted in the area most of his life.

"In the process of unloading the boat, I just stepped in a hole," he said in a recent interview. "I tried to get out. I've been stuck before. I knew exactly what to expect.

"I just kept sinking. One leg went down and, trying to push myself up, both went down. I ended up chest deep. It seemed like it didn't take any time at all."

The story of how Chain was finally pulled from the mud by the helicopter was told in a 1986 Reader's Digest article. It took 45 minutes of Chain digging himself out as the chopper pulled on him.


"You would think if you got overhead leverage like that it would just suck you right out. Let me tell you, it didn't happen. It was a slow process," he said.

"In this country that kind of area is extremely dangerous. I knew that and I was always careful. Hell, you step into a hole and it's just unforeseeable."

Adeana Dickison's death has prompted Anchorage area rescue agencies to think hard about techniques for rescuing such victims. The Girdwood and MatSu fire departments both have portable pumps which have successfully washed people out of the mud in the past. But in Dickison's case the water was too high, by the time paramedics arrived, for the pump to do any good.

The question asked most often by second guessers is "why didn't they cut her leg off?"

"That's easier said than done," Rohling answered. "Sure that's better than death. But she might not have survived anyway . . . That would take somebody with some real skill. We don't carry the right instruments."

"It's not going to be quick and easy," said Trooper Sgt. Paul Harris. "I've taken a lot of moose legs off and I'm telling you, it's not going to be quick and easy.

And both Rohling and Harris said the liability factor from such a procedure would be great.

"If the water comes in and drowns her, that's nature that drowned her. If you cut her leg off and she dies, you killed her," Harris said.

A local diving company owns a sophisticated piece of equipment which looks like the top of a wetsuit, is heated, contains compressed air and a microphone so rescuers can talk to the wearer, Harris said.

"If we had known about it we would have had more time to work with her." The troopers have arranged to rent the device for future rescues, planning to fly it to the scene by helicopter.

The Anchorage Fire Department's dive team was en route with compressed air tanks when Dickison died, but paramedics speculated it would have been difficult to calm her enough to get her to breathe through a regulator.

The Girdwood and MatSu fire departments, meanwhile, are planning their first training sessions specifically on mud rescues.


"We're going to stick some training dummies in the mud," Rohling said.

Hancock said he has written a policy guide for mud rescues and outfitted two stations in the Wasilla area with mud rescue kits that include the portable pump, a long, forestry hose, plywood and ladders for reaching people far from solid ground.

The Girdwood rescuers involved in the fight to save Adeana Dickison have suffered since that horrible day on the mudflats, Rohling said. Several days later, they met with a psychiatrist for a "critical incident stress debriefing."

"One guy was a new member. He never had anything to lead him up to something like that," said Rohling. "The others had dealt with someone dying. The one guy had talked to her and she had looked him in the eye and said please don't let her drown.

"It's something we're all going to live with. It's always going to be in the back of our minds."

By Marilee Enge

Anchorage Daily News

Marilee Enge

Marilee Enge is a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News.