NULATO -- A snowmachiner says he was driving drunk when he hit two dog teams racing in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race Saturday, killing one dog and injuring several others.
Two Rivers musher Aliy Zirkle and Denali Park's Jeff King reported that a snowmachiner repeatedly tried to hit their dog teams as they traveled to the Yukon River checkpoint of Nulato early Saturday morning. The snowmachine hit King's team, according to a press release from the Iditarod Trail Committee, resulting in the death of 3-year-old Nash and non-life-threatening injuries to two others: 2-year-old Banjo and 3-year-old Crosby. A dog in Zirkle's team also received a non-life-threatening injury.
Arnold Demoski, 26, was arrested Saturday afternoon in connection with the incident. He was in custody Saturday at the home he shares in Nulato with his parents, said Alaska State Trooper Robert Nunley, who flew to the village from Galena.
Demoski is charged with second-degree assault, reckless endangerment, reckless driving and six counts of fifth-degree criminal mischief, Nunley said.
Demoski will be flown to Fairbanks and held at the Fairbanks jail, Nunley said. His arraignment is scheduled for 1:30 p.m Sunday.
More charges may come. Driving under the influence is not part of the current group of charges, said trooper Brian Wassmann.
The incident happened at 2 or 3 a.m.
"It's not to say we couldn't follow up with charges later, we might later on, but six or seven hours had passed, so the level of intoxication was not going to be there," Wassmann said.
In a phone interview with Alaska Dispatch News Saturday, Demoski said he hit the teams while driving blackout drunk.
Troopers say they got a report Saturday morning that Zirkle's sled had been hit on the side by a snowmachine about five miles from Koyukuk on the Yukon River. Troopers reported that the snowmachine turned around multiple times and came back at her before driving away. Zirkle later had contact with the snowmachine again approximately 12 miles before reaching Nulato, where the snowmachine revved up and pointed at her before finally leaving the area. Zirkle was not injured but one dog was bruised during the incident.
A video from Iditarod Insider shows Zirkle arriving in the checkpoint Saturday morning. She appears to be shaken when asked how she's doing. Later in the video she wipes away tears while describing the incident.
"I'm really bad," she told race judge Karen Ramstead as she began checking in. "Someone tried to kill me with a snowmachine."
Troopers reported that King's team was hit in the same spot as Zirkle's second encounter.
Both mushers decided to continue racing. Zirkle arrived at the checkpoint at 2:17 a.m. and left at just after 6 a.m. Saturday. King arrived at 3:25 a.m. and left at 11:25 a.m.
He didn't slow down
In an interview in the Nulato school gym Saturday morning, King, a four-time race champion, said it happened quickly. He was traveling on the Yukon River Saturday night about 10 miles from Nulato. There, the 40-foot-wide packed trail follows the mile-wide river. He had two lights on and reflectors on his sled bag and every dog when a fast-moving snowmachine sideswiped his team.
"It literally took as long as a snowmachine takes to go 80 mph the length of a dog team," King said. "It's a millisecond."
No words were exchanged between him and the driver, King said. The snowmachine sped on as King started to care for his team.
"He didn't turn around," King said. "He didn't slow down."
Nash died almost instantly, King said. Crosby had a swollen leg and it appeared broken. Banjo, he said, was an up-and-coming superstar, who was knocked unconscious from the crash.
"I don't know how (the snowmachiner) could have not known I was there," King said. "I think I was more of a target."
He loaded Nash's body and the two dogs into a trailer attached to his sled. King said he picked up a piece of the snowmachine and turned it in once he reached the checkpoint.
King said that despite what a press release said, he did not request medical assistance for himself upon arriving in Nulato. His dogs continued to get care and Banjo became conscious again.
"That was a sigh of relief," King said. "I wasn't sure he was going to live."
On the trail, he said, he considered hitting his emergency beacon but decided he would get into town before anyone could come help him and his sled dog team.
In the cafeteria, he ate a burrito and drank a cup of coffee. He ended up dropping four dogs — Nash, Crosby and Banjo, plus another dog that he said was "lame" by the time he arrived. He didn't know if that was because of the crash.
King said Nash was part of a four-boy litter named after the band Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. He described the 3-year-old dog as "not overly personable and slightly stoic." Still, he said the two had an "excellent relationship."
As King shoveled dog poop at the Ruby checkpoint several hours before departing Friday, Nash had wandered loose as the rest of the team remained tethered to King's gang line. King said Nash was helping to wake the rest of the team. Only once or twice did he have to call him back.
"We knew what each other expected of each other," King said in Nulato Saturday.
I hope they can forgive me
In a phone interview before his arrest Saturday afternoon, Demoski apologized for the incident and denied it was an attack. He's a longtime fan of the race who used to make signs welcoming the mushers. He said King was always his favorite.
"I don't care if people know if I was drinking and driving," he said. "I'm really glad (Zirkle) and (King) are OK and I really feel sorry for Nash."
Demoski, a natural resources coordinator for the Nulato tribal council, said he came out of what he believed was a drunken blackout after the collisions got his adrenaline pumping.
He said he thinks he turned around to check on the teams but was afraid to stop out of fear he would get in trouble for drinking and driving.
"I think I turned around to check on them," he said. "They say I continuously attacked them, but I turned around because I was concerned."
Demoski said he had been partying with friends in the upriver village of Koyukuk, about 22 miles northeast of Nulato. He was returning home when the accident happened. He believes he hit the dog teams from behind and could not see the mushers' head lamps.
He said when he woke up Saturday morning he heard what had happened, went to check on his snowmachine and saw the front panel missing. He said he called the village police officer right away and said he would cooperate with troopers.
"I hope they can forgive me," he said of the mushers. "I want this community to forgive me and I want my employers to forgive me, and hopefully I can get over this alcohol problem."
However, after Demoski spoke with journalists, trooper Wassmann said Demoski was not cooperating with troopers in Nulato.
"We have him in custody now and he has elected not to talk," said Wassmann. "That is certainly his right."
Demoski was not combative, Wassmann said.
Nulato residents gathered into the gymnasium Saturday afternoon. Some posed for photographs with King, offering their condolences.
Kathleen Sam, born and raised here, said the village would host a fundraiser Saturday night for King's and Zirkle's kennels. They will sell crafts like earrings and hats, she said.
As news spread throughout the village this morning, she said the village was shocked.
After arriving at the checkpoint Saturday, veteran racer Jessie Royer said she couldn't believe what had happened, especially because of the width of the trail into Nulato.
"It's the whole freaking Yukon River," Royer said. "There's no excuse for it."
This is not the first time a musher has been hit by a snowmachine on the Iditarod trail. One dog was killed and another injured in a similar incident in 2008 in a team belonging to Minnesota musher Jennifer Freking. Freking was parked on the Yukon River between Koyukuk and Nulato at night when a snowmachiner hit her team. Freking went on to finish the race in 50th place.
King said it's easy for him to find "all kind of silver linings" after the crash.
"Six inches over, he would have hit me and I would be dead," King said.
He said he was thinking about Iditarod musher Martin Buser's son, who was learning to walk again after a bad car crash in Seattle. He said he thought about Facebook posts about how you should "enjoy life because it could change in a second and it sounds cliche until something happens."
Still, he said, he hopes the crash can have some positive impacts.
"I feel very sorry for the village and for the person involved because it obviously sheds light on social problems, not shared by the whole village but unfortunately the weight is carried by the whole village," King said. "Is it possible this will shed light to some that will change behavior in the future? You can only hope."
He wasn't alone in that hope.
"We're all looking at things differently now," said Hugh Neff of Tok, the Yukon Quest champion a month ago. "It's pretty crazy."
Tegan Hanlon reported from Nulato and Alex deMarban and Suzanna Caldwell from Anchorage.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing