Rural Alaska

King Cove-Cold Bay road controversy reignited as father, son evacuated on same day

As a nationwide clash continues over what critics call another Alaska 'road to nowhere,' residents in the village of King Cove argue that an unusual two medevacs in a single day last week -- of a father and his infant son -- underscore the need for the gravel road slicing through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge to the airport at Cold Bay.

The proposed 11-mile extension would link the village with the Cold Bay airport and huge runways that accept jets in nasty weather and at night, when the small unlit airstrip in King Cove shuts down. But the only way to reach Cold Bay by car is on a road that opponents say would threaten the refuge's eel grass and valuable wildlife habitat.

Residents say the proposed road would have reduced the suffering of fisherman Walter Wilson Jr. and his newborn son, both of whom spent a long night in King Cove -- for unrelated reasons -- waiting for a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter crew to arrive and haul them to Cold Bay, where they could then be flown to an Anchorage hospital.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in December she wouldn't allow the road to cut through the refuge. But the issue -- which has been argued for at least 20 years -- is far from dead. U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski is demanding that Jewell reverse her decision, and fending off attacks from road opponents.

On Tuesday, March 11 -- the same day as the two medevacs -- the Los Angeles Times ran an op-ed from Bruce Babbitt saying the road remains a backdoor attempt to reduce costs for Japanese-owned fish processor Peter Pan Seafoods in King Cove. With a road, the cannery in King Cove could get products to the Cold Bay airport for quick shipment to international buyers, said Babbitt, Jewell's predecessor under former President Bill Clinton, who years ago promised to veto the idea.

Murkowski shot back on Monday, arguing that Babbitt's "delusive" comments were off-base, including his assertion that a road would be "impassable" in bad winter weather. She argues that residents have spent decades fighting for the road because it would save lives.

"Perhaps most offensive is Babbitt's attempt to brand this as a 'road to nowhere,'" she wrote. "For local residents, it would be a road to somewhere -- and that somewhere would be lifesaving medical treatment."

King Cove mayor Henry Mack was less diplomatic. He said Babbitt is "full of shit" and "lying." The road can only be used for noncommercial purposes and therefore won't financially benefit the cannery, he said, referencing a 2009 act by Congress spelling out the proposed road's limitations.

Mack isn't happy with Jewell, either, noting that she visited King Cove to meet with residents prior to the most recent rejection of the project.

"She watched our mouths move and didn't hear a word we said. When she got on the bus to leave, she said someone has to speak for the birds," Mack said.

But what about the King Cove residents over the years who have died trying to get medical attention, he asked. Or what about people like Walter Wilson Jr. and his son, who waited hours for help? Why isn't Jewell speaking for them?

On March 10, a 600-pound crab pot broke from a stack and slammed into Wilson, 33, as he was fishing for cod on the vessel Miss Courtney Kim.

The pot landed on his back, displacing his hips and fracturing his pelvis. The accident locked both his legs in place, but the left leg was in worse condition, bent at the knee and crooked at an odd angle. His fellow fishermen cut off his fishing gear and hauled him inside the cabin, tying him down as the boat sailed back to town, he said.

By the time he reached the clinic, it was dark. The U.S. Coast Guard decided to wait until morning to fly out, because visibility was low and the winds were too strong, said Grant DeVuyst, a Coast Guard spokesperson.

"It was pretty uncomfortable with the pain and everything, and a little bit of shock," Wilson said from his hospital bed at Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage on Monday, describing his wait through the night. "I didn't get my hips back in place until I got to the Anchorage hospital."

The clinic put him on painkillers, but his legs kept cramping up, especially his left leg. The left side of his pelvis would eventually need pins and a plate to repair the fracture, he said.

After a physician assistant gave Wilson painkillers, he passed out, he said. When he awoke a couple of hours later, he realized his 1-month-old son Wyatt was in the clinic, too. The newborn had trouble breathing and was eventually diagnosed with respiratory syncytial virus, a common sickness in rural Alaska that's sometimes fatal for toddlers and infants.

"I was wondering if he was OK when I was fishing. I wasn't sure how bad it was," Walter said.

At one point during the night, the baby stopped breathing as a physician assistant held him, according to a press statement from the Aleutians East Borough.

When the Coast Guard arrived the next morning in an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter, they took the baby first. With medical personnel on board, there wasn't enough room to grab Walter and still fly safely, said DeVuyst.

So later that morning, the Coast Guard came back for Walter, hauling him to Cold Bay to await a medevac after he'd already waited about 12 hours at the clinic.

He said everyone in King Cove wants a road. He's not the first who needed to get out for safety, and he won't be the last, he said.

In February, a 63-year-old woman suffering from heart failure also needed a medevac in a blizzard and gale-force winds. Four U.S. Coast Guard personnel hauled her to safety after they landed in King Cove in the dangerous conditions, said Mack in another statement from the borough.

"It would just help get people out when needed," Wilson said.

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com.

(Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said the proposed road would cut through eel grass. The story has been changed to note that impacts from a road could threaten eel grass. However, the proposed road would not directly cut through eel grass.)

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