Rural Alaska

Diomede graduation speaker found dead in isolated Alaska community

A young woman who traveled to the remote Bering Strait island community of Little Diomede to speak at the school's graduation was found dead at the community school. Investigators say foul play is not suspected but the woman was experiencing unknown medical issues just days before her death.

Alaska State Troopers say 33-year-old Nome resident Evita Samuels was found unresponsive in the Diomede school library early Tuesday morning by a school employee. Troopers and the Diomede village public safety officer were first alerted around 10:30 a.m.

Bering Strait School District Superintendent Dr. Bobby Bolen said Samuels was invited by the Diomede school's senior class to speak at their May 8 graduation. She arrived on the Bering Sea island community on May 4. She was supposed to leave on May 11. Samuels was staying at the school while she waited for the weather to clear and a helicopter to land.

"And unfortunately while waiting for choppers to come back out and take her back home," Bolen said by phone Wednesday morning, "she was unable to be awoken (Tuesday) morning and passed away."

The only flights on or off the island -- a helicopter service provided by Portland-based Erickson Aviation -- have been hampered by technical and weather delays since May 7, and in early 2015, service was down for several weeks. Repairs to Erickson's helicopter were completed last week but consistently poor weather kept the mail and Essential Air Service flights from landing.

Trooper Sgt. Charles Cross of the Nome post said Wednesday that foul play is not suspected, but that Samuels "experienced health-related issues" prior to her death.

"While she was there, she experienced unknown medical issues, and made those medical issues know to her friends on the island," Cross said. "The next morning, after complaining, she was found in the library unresponsive and (it was) later confirmed by the (Diomede community) health aide that she had died."

Sgt. Cross said it's not clear if Samuels' health issues existed prior to her arrival on Diomede.

Troopers chartered the Erickson helicopter around midday Tuesday, but had to return to Nome due to poor weather. They attempted the flight again in the afternoon and were able to land on Diomede and retrieve Samuels' remains.

Troopers say Samuels' family, who at one time lived in Nome and worked throughout the region, have been notified. Her remains have been sent to the state medical examiner for an autopsy.

Troopers say the death investigation is ongoing.