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How to save a life (in Alaska) 

click to enlarge Tess Heyburn stands amid the rubble of what was her - home in Sitka, Alaska, with one of her two cats who, she - feared, had perished in the plane crash and subsequent - fire. They all reconnected within 24 hours. - JAMES POULSON, SITKA SENTINEL
  • James Poulson, Sitka Sentinel
  • Tess Heyburn stands amid the rubble of what was her home in Sitka, Alaska, with one of her two cats who, she feared, had perished in the plane crash and subsequent fire. They all reconnected within 24 hours.

"There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged

to find ways in which you yourself have been altered."

Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom

Just returned from a glorious 14-day family adventure in southeastern Alaska.Instead of fish caught, salmon savored, mountains hiked, blueberries wolfed, bears sighted and beers drunk, this travelogue's focus is on what surprised me about our nation's largest state.

We arrived in Sitka, the only town on Baranof Island, an El Paso County-sized land mass with about 7,000 people a couple thousand more than Manitou Springs.

The town is nearly 200 miles by ferry from Juneau, between six and 12 hours depending on boat speed. Unlike Manitou, Sitka is a self-contained community that sports three grocery stores, two movie theaters, an Ace Hardware, a Radio Shack, a great book store, a great outdoors store, a Ben Franklin general store, a hospital, a vibrant, cyber-friendly public library, an airport large enough for 727 jets, and a state-run assisted-living home, plus dentists, doctors and multiple lawyers.

Sitka's largest employers, in rank order: health care, city/state government, fishing/canning, tourism and forestry.

Just before I left the Lower 48, Independent sales executive Susan Molumby told me her sister lives in Sitka. So on arrival I called Tess Heyburn, who has lived on the island for nearly three decades. She worked on a fishing boat for her first 13 years there. She now works as a massage therapist during the day, and some nights as a counselor at an alcoholic-rehab clinic.

Tess graciously loaned us her Chevy Cavalier, which she purchased new in 1992. Now, 15 years later, the car has logged fewer than 50,000 miles Tess averages about 5 miles a day! How grand my life would be if I averaged just 10 minutes a day in my Subaru.

On the misty morning of Monday, Aug. 6, my 10-year-old son Sam and I started hiking toward Indian River to check out the salmon running upstream, when he suddenly said: "Dad, I really, really need a chocolate shake from the Lane 7," the local greasy spoon. Sam thought Lane 7 was like a restaurant from the Johnny Rockets chain, "but real."

click to enlarge Fire erupts in a Sitka, Alaska, neighborhood on Aug. 6, - moments after an airplane crashed into the home of Tess - Heyburn. About 10 minutes before, Heyburn had left the - house to have a milkshake with John and Sam Weiss.
  • Fire erupts in a Sitka, Alaska, neighborhood on Aug. 6, moments after an airplane crashed into the home of Tess Heyburn. About 10 minutes before, Heyburn had left the house to have a milkshake with John and Sam Weiss.

So we pulled a 180. Since Tess lived literally next door to Lane 7, I cell-phoned her. She said, "Order me a chocolate shake and I'll meet you in two shakes." Ten minutes later, while all three of us were finishing our refreshments, a loud bang rocked the restaurant, and the lights blinked off and on.

A patron sitting by the window reported that a truck had not even bothered to stop after knocking over a nearby utility pole. We chuckled that the driver most likely was not fit to be driving, and took off to hide from the law not easy to do on an island.

A minute later a man stuck his head into the restaurant yelling: "FIRE! FIRE! FIRE! FIRE! FIRE!" and all 20 patrons of the Lane 7 piled out onto the street.

I saw an airplane wing sticking out of a home just behind Lane 7. My first thought: An airplane aficionado had rigged up some sort of an aircraft totem. But then flames shot up everywhere. Within seconds, the entire house was engulfed. I just then realized it was Tess' home ablaze.

A few minutes later, I found Tess in the crowd. We hugged. She explained that Sam and I had saved her life, for the plane hit where she was sitting when I had called. While clearly our deed of derring-do involved no heroics, one should never underestimate the power of a chocolate shake.

Sadly, the pilot and three passengers, all non-locals, perished in the accident.

During our pre-airplane-crash chat at Lane 7, I had arranged to borrow Tess' car the following morning so we could tour a small chocolate factory several miles up-island. I assumed the car offer was moot, but at 8 a.m. the next day, Tess called to re-offer her car "such as it was." Everything worked fine, but the rear light covers had melted into a cool-looking, oozing mess.

Sam and I met Tess over coffee 10 minutes later. I told my son that we were likely to see a woman still in shock; after all, even more so than us, she had a near-death experience. Plus she had lost all her belongings, photographs and most likely her two cats.

Instead, Tess told us she felt completely "beloved and aglow" over how her community had come to her aid. Within minutes of the crash, numerous islanders some friends, others she knew just by sight had offered her places to live "for as long as needed."

Within 24 hours, folks had donated bikes, clothing, shoes her size and other essentials ranging from underwear to chocolate. More than 200 people signed a clipboard at the local coffeehouse wanting to know how they could help her out. Cash was just handed to her as of today, more than $16,000 as well as gift certificates from local stores. The local phone salesman, without being asked, got her a new cell with her old number the morning following the crash.

Tess said her life had been a tad in a rut; this could be a new beginning. In a recent phone call, she emphasized that the treatment she received was nothing special, because the Sitka community always rallies behind those who experience unexpected calamity.

While this tragedy will always haunt me, I feel blessed from experiencing the overflowing instant kindness the city of Sitka offered Tess. jweiss@csindy.com

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