Boating accident claims 2 lives near Yakutat

The Situk River in 2018. (Creative Commons photo by Jimmywayne)

Search and rescue authorities in Yakutat say unusually high flows on the Situk River claimed the lives of two visiting fishermen when their boat flooded and capsized on Sept. 24.

A third man on the boat was safely rescued.

Authorities have identified the two deceased men as Michael Hunt, Sr. of Milford, Pennsylvania, and Richard Kowal, Sr. of Port Jarvis, New York. A third passenger on the boat, Douglas Koehn, survived the incident.

All three men were frequent visitors to Yakutat, and both Hunt and Kowal were well known in the community.

The Yakutat Police Department received word at around 9:45 a.m. on Sept. 24 that a boat had capsized on the Situk River about nine miles outside of the city.

Yakutat Police Chief Jim Capra says the men were traveling upriver in a 15-foot jet boat when it became pinned while attempting to avoid logs in the river.

“The water had risen to, not flood stage, but a very high stage overnight,” Capra said. “They probably had experience at that river level, but the flows are probably twice as fast — and the river’s normally not very fast — but it is always full of log jams and log piles. It looks like they misjudged the speed of the current.”

Capra said the boat took on water and capsized after crashing into a pile of logs. Both Koehn and Hunt became pinned in the water, but only Koehn was able to free himself.

“Michael was pinned just downstream on that same log, the same log the boat was on and, and didn’t make it,” Capra said.

A pair of sport fishermen passing by spotted both the boat and Hunt but were unable to retrieve him due to the strong current.

“It was just too dangerous with the current. So they went downstream looking for anybody else or any debris and they found Doug, got Doug to the landing and raced into town,” Capra said.

Koehn was taken to the Yakutat Community Health Clinic to be evaluated and was later released.

The fishermen called first responders, who organized a search. According to Capra, a group of volunteer firefighters, searchers and medics retrieved Hunt’s body around two hours after the accident and continued the search for Kowal.

It took four more days to find him.

“Other than a couple of small items, no sign of Richard, so we concentrated on the high probability search areas with probes, poles and an underwater camera on a probe looking under and through the log jams,” Capra said.

One of the search teams found Kowal’s body on Sept. 27, near the accident site.

Capra says over 50 volunteers and first responders aided in the search and rescue efforts.

KCAW - Sitka

KCAW is our partner station in Sitka. KTOO collaborates with partners across the state to cover important news and to share stories with our audiences.

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