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Body of second missing snowmachiner found in Big Lake

Members of the Mat-Su Borough Water Rescue Dive Team walk toward an Alaska State Troopers helicopter Friday on Big Lake as crews recover the body of missing snowmachiner LaVerne Pettigen. Crews found the body of Pettigen's husband nearby Saturday. (Alaska State Troopers)

Rescue crews recovered the body of Vanton Pettigen from the icy waters of Big Lake on Saturday, about 25 yards from where crews recovered his wife’s body Friday, bringing an end to a search that began days ago.

LaVerne Pettigen, 64, and her husband, Vanton, 66, were last seen Sunday, snowmachining on the lake amid warnings about thin ice and open water. The search involved more than 100 people.

Vanton’s body was found at 11:50 a.m. near Burston Island and recovered around 1 p.m., authorities said Saturday afternoon.

LaVerne and Van Pettigen (Photo courtesy of Pettigen family)

Alaska Dive Search Rescue and Recovery Team used sonar and an underwater ROV, or remotely operated vehicle, to find his body, authorities said. The Mat-Su Borough Water Rescue Dive Team, working with the West Lakes Fire Department, recovered his body from the lake.

LaVerne’s body was recovered early Friday after a troopers helicopter the day before found a snowmachine helmet and body in open water, in an area with “rotten ice," a spokesperson said. The helicopter returned Friday to begin recovery efforts.

Family members had asked troopers to check on the Pettigens on Tuesday after not hearing from them since the previous Friday afternoon. Big Lake resident Cathy Mayfield spotted the couple snowmachining near the lake’s north shore on Sunday. That was the last time anyone saw them.

The couple’s adult daughters, LaTisha Wilkinson and Leigha McDuffie, provided a statement Saturday they had written as a remembrance of their parents, shortly before their bodies were discovered. Their parents were hard workers and loving parents, with open arms for strangers, they said.

“To spend a day with them would be FULL of belly laughs, ‘Praise the Lords’ and talk about getting a work out in!” the statement said. “They are each other’s yin and yang. While LaVerne likes to go go go, Van likes to slow down and take it easy, where they balance each other out.”

“They have beautiful souls; full of life and love for the Lord and we all miss them," the statement said. “We need their listening ears, more conversations, more coffee dates, more hugs and more everything from both of them.”

Authorities say ice around Mat-Su was likely weakened by the Nov. 30 magnitude 7.0 quake and thousands of aftershocks that followed, with reports of new cracks and springs -- even holes linked to possible methane releases -- creating open water in places normally frozen over.

The couple operated a real-estate company that served Anchorage, Mat-Su and the Bristol Bay area.

LaVerne was born in King Salmon, where she graduated and then worked for her father’s trucking company, according to a biography on the business’s website. Vanton was born in Baltimore and joined the U.S. Air Force after graduation. The two met while he was stationed in King Salmon.

Alaska State Troopers are warning people to stay clear of the area of Burston Island on Big Lake due to unsafe ice conditions.

LaVerne Pettigen (in photo) and her husband, Van Pettigen, went missing last weekend in Big Lake. (Photo courtesty of LaTisha Wilkinson)

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