Molly Koonaloak 09-28-09
Gwendolyn Gordon

Sled ride turns deadly for two 4-year-old Barrow girls


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 and feasts.

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 North Slope.

"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, she said.

"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 or call him at 257-4589.