Yakutat Fire Department recognized for ‘heroic’ search and rescue

Yakutat’s Harbor in August 2017 (Kwong/KCAW).

The Alaska State Legislature and the Coast Guard have recognized the Yakutat Fire Department for a search and rescue effort last August. The team of firefighters and volunteers responded after a man fell into the water in the middle of the night during a storm.

The nearest Coast Guard station is over 200 nautical miles from Yakutat, and the town has no official search and rescue team. It’s often up to local volunteers to respond in an emergency, especially when weather conditions are bad and time is of the essence.

“We’ll do whatever you got. If we got somebody in trouble in the water, fire or wherever however, we’ll do what we can and make the best out of it,” Fire Chief Casey Mapes said. “We’re short chronically always on the proper type of gear that we need, but we improvise always and we get it done.”

Mapes led the effort last August to rescue a crewmember on the fishing vessel Provider, Franklin Fox, who’d fallen off of a ladder into Monti Bay and disappeared. Enduring gale force winds and heavy rain, volunteers searched the water on skiffs and scoured the beaches with flashlights, calling Fox’s name.

The bad weather caused the Provider to crash against the dock where Mapes stood waiting for a volunteer diver to resurface. He said all he could think about were the responders who were putting their lives at risk, and the man they were searching for.

“That guy out there needs you. Ain’t nobody else on this whole planet that can help him but you. So you gotta do what you gotta do,” Mapes said.

By the time the diver, Mark Sappington, pulled Fox’s body to the surface, more than an hour and a half had passed since he’d fallen in. Mapes and two others scaled the slippery ladder and pulled Fox onto the nearby vessel. They administered CPR before transporting him to the local clinic, where he was pronounced dead.

Mapes said he thinks they received recognition because they responded quickly with a large group of volunteers despite the dangerous conditions. If they’d waited for the Coast Guard, they may not have found the body.

“It was above and beyond. We didn’t have to do that. Probably shouldn’t have done that, if you want to get your rule book out. In my mind, under circumstances like that, sometimes you need to bend the rules a little bit to try to do what’s the best thing,” he said.

This isn’t Mapes’ first dangerous search and rescue. He’s been with the fire department for 36 years, and he can think of many times when he and others have responded, even when they don’t know if they’ll make it back alive.

“I just have always had that creed about me that I don’t much care when it’s time, I’m gonna go and if I get to come back, I get to come back. But I’ll sleep good at night knowing that I went. No matter what,” he said.

Mapes says he’s grateful that they were able to bring some closure to Fox’s family and crewmates, and that all of the volunteers came back safely. He’s also thankful for the recognition, and hopes it will inspire more volunteers to respond in the future when the need arises.

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