Rural Alaska

Nome boater’s death was preventable, family says as troopers review search effort

Bo Adams

The family of 38-year-old Nome resident Bo Adams, who died this week after becoming stranded on a boat trip home, says Alaska State Troopers failed to conduct a timely search for him.

Troopers officials say they are reviewing the incident to see if the search could have been handled differently.

Adams died nearly 30 hours after troopers launched a plane that spotted him, then left the search to volunteers.

“He had hope and it took 28 1/2 hours for him to be picked up. But after 28 1/2 hours, he passed away,” Adams’ sister, Brenda Adams, said Friday. “For 28 1/2 hours, he had hope and this could have been prevented. His death could have been prevented.”

Adams loved being outside, snowmachining and playing pool, his family said. They described him as a jokester who smiled often and had a big heart.

He spent about a week visiting his father in Koyuk — the village where he grew up — before leaving for his home in Nome this week, according to Brenda Adams.

Adams set off for Nome around noon Monday in the same small boat he took to Koyuk, his sister said. But friends and family grew worried when, by 9:30 p.m. that day, Adams still hadn’t arrived.

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‘He’s a hunter, he camps, he subsists’

A small group set out by boat to Adams’ last known location near Rocky Point, which is about 50 miles east of Nome. The group found his boat abandoned and saw footprints leading inland.

Brenda Adams said she believes her brother headed to shore to avoid dangerous, choppy waves. Winds picked up Monday night, with gusts reported up to 20 mph in nearby Golovin, according to National Weather Service meteorologist Jim Brader.

“I’m thinking of Bo and how his mindset is — it’s choppy, he’s in a little bit smaller boat than most ocean boats are — he knows to stop,” Brenda Adams said. “He’s a hunter, he camps, he subsists, he knows how to read the weather and he knows how to anticipate if something is not going to work out due to weather if he’s traveling via snowmachine or whatever.”

The group searched through much of the night Monday and returned to Nome around 8 a.m. Tuesday, she said. At that point, she called the troopers to report her brother was missing.

Troopers launched a plane by about 9:30 a.m. and saw Adams walking about two miles from shore, said Andrew Merrill, captain of the agency’s C Detachment, which oversees Western Alaska. Troopers said he did not appear to be in distress.

“The pilot who observed him on the ground, he did wave to us and acknowledged that he saw us and then he kind of walked into the trees,” Merrill said. “So he was mobile, and he waved to us, but there was no, what we normally expect from somebody in distress would be, like jumping up and down, both arms waving.”

Adams was spotted about east of Nome in an area Merrill described as generally hilly, with rocks, tundra and valleys. Troopers were unable to land their Cessna 206 there, Merrill said, because the plane needs a larger runway space.

At 11 a.m. Tuesday, troopers provided Adams’ location coordinates to a friend of his who had searched Monday night before and planned to search again, Merrill said. The agency offered to pay for gas to continue the search.

It’s common for troopers to rely on volunteers or knowledgeable citizens to help with rescues and they often pay for related expenses, like gas, Merrill said.

While the Department of Public Safety is “statutorily responsible” for search and rescues, troopers rely on other agencies, volunteers, family and friends — “everybody who’s willing to actively go do the searching,” said troopers Lt. Brent Johnson, a deputy commander for the Western Alaska detachment.

“Very rarely are DPS personnel the actual searchers. The system has never been set up that way, we don’t have the specialization or manpower to do that,” Johnson said. “Our role is to manage the search and rescue response.”

Troopers did not contact local search and rescue organizations, the Alaska Rescue Coordination Center or request other assistance on Tuesday because, Merrill said, it didn’t make sense to expend other resources when someone was already on the way to get Adams: the friend who knew his last coordinates.

But when the friend reached the spot, Adams was nowhere to be found. After hours of searching, Brenda Adams said troopers instructed the searcher to return to Nome around 5 p.m. because it would be getting dark soon.

Troopers routinely suspend search and rescue operations when it becomes dark due to safety concerns, Merrill said. He did not know all the details about the response, including what time it became clear to troopers that Bo Adams would not be found Tuesday.

Brenda Adams said she was told the plan was for search efforts to continue Wednesday.

‘What criteria of an emergency does it take?’

Troopers contacted the Alaska Rescue Coordination Center on Wednesday morning, according to Merrill.

Troopers on Wednesday morning again flew over the area where Adams had been seen the day before. Merrill said they could not locate him.

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The U.S. Coast Guard, dispatched to the area, sent a helicopter from Kotzebue, roughly 180 miles away. An Army National Guard Blackhawk helicopter in Nome didn’t have enough crew members to fly it, Merrill said.

The Coast Guard found Bo Adams dead around 2 p.m. Wednesday, Merrill said. He said he didn’t know how far Adams was from the place the trooper pilot spotted him Tuesday.

Adams’ family believes he would still be alive had search efforts had been more robust.

Brenda Adams said she doesn’t understand why a helicopter wasn’t launched Tuesday to rescue her brother after he was first spotted.

“I was thinking in my brain, what criteria of an emergency does it take for him?” she said.

Adams took care of his friends and family, his cousin Dawn Miller said. As a child he would bring birds or other animals from hunting trips to his grandmother, she said. After he moved to Nome, he would walk dogs for friends or check on elderly neighbors, his sister said. He was outgoing and had many friends.

Officials should have known Tuesday morning that her cousin was in danger, Miller said. She doesn’t understand why they didn’t think he was in distress. He had been stranded overnight and was several miles from his boat, she said. Temperatures overnight dropped into the 20s in the area.

The search should not have been left to just friends and family, Miller said.

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Merrill said officials hope to talk with the family and will investigate the death and response.

“We mourn with the families, it’s hard on the troopers, it’s hard on everybody because we weren’t successful in keeping somebody alive. So we absolutely feel for the family,” he said. “We’re going to review the entire report and all the steps that we took to see if there was something that we could have done better or that should have been done differently.”

The response was complicated by short staffing in Nome, Merrill said: The two troopers in the area needed to respond to other cases Tuesday. The search was still a priority, he said, but troopers believed Adams would be easily rescued by a friend.

“We knew where he was and we had something going to pick him up, and so there wasn’t a significant concern for safety and risk because we’ve had hundreds of searches that are like this that ended up being successfully concluded, because we know where they are and someone’s coming out. Then we locate them and we save them,” he said. “So this didn’t work the way that they normally work, and so I think that’s a concern.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story said Adams was spotted west of Nome and about 20 miles from there. He was last seen east of Nome near Rocky Point, which is about 50 miles away.

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Tess Williams

Tess Williams is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News, focusing on breaking news. Before joining the ADN in 2019, she was a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald in North Dakota and previously helped cover the Nebraska Legislature for The Associated Press. Contact her at twilliams@adn.com.

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