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Rural Alaska

Father dies, 5 people rescued after family falls through river ice near Bethel

  • Author: Anna Rose MacArthur, KYUK
  • Updated: January 2
  • Published January 2

BETHEL — A father's body was recovered from the Kuskokwim River on Monday, a day after a snowmachine he and his family were using fell through a marked, open hole in the ice.

A Bethel Search and Rescue team pulled Mark Kasayulie's body from the Kuskokwim around 2 p.m. Monday about eight miles upriver of Bethel.

"Then we all gathered around and we had a couple people say a prayer," said Bethel Search and Rescue President Mike Riley. "After the prayer was over, we thanked each other and everybody for all the good work everybody was doing, for this quick recovery of Mark, and then we loaded him in a body bag and brought him back to Bethel."

Bethel Search and Rescue said the five survivors were OK and urged people to use overland trails to travel upriver.

The weather New Year's Eve was calm, and the hole was marked with blue reflective tape, but open water can look indistinguishable from the surrounding glare ice, especially at night.

There were six travelers: Kasayulie, his sister-in-law, his wife and their three children.

"I do believe they were on one snowmobile, towing a sled," Riley said.

The family lives in Bethel and was heading to Akiachak, where they are originally from. The survivors were able to pull themselves onto the ice and call for help. Troopers report that the family saw Kasayulie go "into the water and did not see him get out."

Bethel Search and Rescue heard about the accident from Bethel police just before 10 p.m. Riley says searchers reached the family within 45 minutes.

"They were very hypothermic; they were all wet," Riley described.

The responders used their own clothes to warm the family.

"They gave them their jackets, their coats," Riley said. "One of our members actually took his shoes off and gave it to one of the boys."

The searchers transported the survivors to Bethel, where two ambulances were waiting to carry them to the hospital.

On Monday morning, volunteers from Bethel Search and Rescue returned to the site with hooks and drag bars. They handed the equipment to volunteers from Akiachak and Kwethluk to recover Kasayulie. Riley said more than 60 people helped.

"Three hooks grabbed him after about an hour and a half of dragging, and that's how we brought him up," Riley said.

The crews then blocked the trail.

"The trail by the bluff is completely cut off for everybody's safety," Riley said. "The glare ice is very hard to read on open water, and that's the reason probably why this happened."

Riley urges everyone traveling upriver from Bethel to use the overland trail from Hangar Lake to Akiachak. Sticking to the marked trail helps prevent other travelers from following wandering tracks.

Kasayulie was the second person lost to the river this winter. In early December, Christopher Gregory from Sleetmute fell through open water as he attempted to skip his snowmachine across the Kuskokwim. Searchers continue to drag hooks along the riverbed in hopes of recovering his body.

In December, Bethel Search and Rescue called the number of open holes on the Kuskokwim River and sloughs "uncountable." Its members said there were more and bigger open holes than they remembered ever seeing.

The all-volunteer group has reported a spike in emergency calls this winter, saying about 95 percent of them involved alcohol.

This article originally appeared at KYUK.org and is republished here with permission.

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