Molly Koonaloak 09-28-09
Sled ride turns deadly for two 4-year-old Barrow girls
By JAMES HALPIN, firstname.lastname@example.org
Published: September 29th, 2009
Two young Barrow girls out for an afternoon of sledding died after they slid out
onto a lagoon, broke through thin ice and fell into the frigid water below Monday
afternoon, according to police and their families.
Molly Koonaloak and Gwendolyn Gordon, 4-year-old cousins, were pronounced dead in
Anchorage early Tuesday morning as the North Slope community was celebrating the
successful start of the fall whaling season.
"The whole community's together in both cases and they're crying and being happy
at the same time," said the girls' great-uncle, Rex Okakok. "It's always very hard
to take things like that, especially with little kids."
Life was good in Barrow earlier Monday, he said. The fall bowhead hunt was under
way and hunters, greeted by calm winds and seas and whales near shore, were packing
meat in freezers daily. Hunters have landed eight whales from the Beafort Sea since
Saturday, Barrow Whaling Captains Association President Eugene Brower said. The
whales bring home a staple of subsistence food and, with it, a flurry of butchering
The weather Monday was cool, wind was light and the sun was peeking out from behind
clouds, Okakok said.
"It was just a beautiful day. Kind of cool, and a little bit of snow on the ground,"
he said. "A beautiful day for kids to play out."
At the Esatkuat Lagoon, a slushy, thin skim of ice laced the water. Residents said
it was only about an inch thick in places. No one would walk on it.
About 2:30 p.m., Molly and Gwendolyn got out from kindergarten on one side of the
lagoon and headed to the other side, near their neighborhood, Okakok said. They
grabbed a sled and went out to a small slope on the north side of the lagoon, near
the intersection of Transit and Ahkovak streets, not far from their homes. It's
a spot where lots of young kids play.
There was barely a dusting of snow, but the ground was starting to freeze, he said.
The area is sloped slightly; it's what passes for a hill on the flat tundra of the
"At that age, I don't think they knew how far they could go. They just knew they
were going to slide down," Okakok said. "They slid (the sled) down and it went further
than what they would normally go. It went on the ice and the ice broke through."
About 2:45 p.m., North Slope Borough Police got a report that someone might have
fallen through the ice.
"A citizen called in and felt like they had seen somebody out there. They wasn't
sure initially whether it was kids or adults," police Lt. Darryl Holman said. "When
something like this happens in the community, it really shakes it up."
Police and medics arriving on scene found the girls submerged in the lagoon near
the shoreline, he said. Okakok estimated they were only about 6 feet out.
"With the kind clothing they were using too, warm clothing, if they got soaked,
they got soaked pretty good," Okakok said.
Officials pulled them out, started CPR and rushed them to Samuel Simmonds Memorial
Hospital. Okakok said medics continued working to save their lives -- performing
CPR and warming them to fight hypothermia -- while they were medevacked to Anchorage.
They were pronounced dead upon arrival.
It was not clear whether anyone was with the girls while they were sledding. Holman
said a police investigation is continuing.
Residents in Barrow, who knew only that the girls had fallen in, learned they had
died about 1 a.m. Tuesday, said Mary Sage, manager of the Arctic Education Foundation.
The North Slope School District was offering counseling to anyone who wanted it,
"The community's grieving with the family," Sage said. "We're such a tight-knit
community. We know the parents, the grandparents. Our children go to school together.
It's really hard when you lose a child, especially two children. It's so tragic."
Find James Halpin online at adn.com/contact/jhalpin or call him at 257-4589.