Alaska State Troopers report that four children missing since Sunday were found alive, although with severe hypothermia, Monday about 18 miles south of their home village of Nunam Iqua in western Alaska.
The four children, ages 2 to 14, set out for a short snow-machine ride Sunday, then evidently became disoriented due to a winter storm that blew in. They were able to find shelter, though, and after an almost 24-hour search, were found by local search and rescuers.
When the children didn’t return as expected Sunday at 1 p.m., family members went looking for them. After a few hours, search parties from Nunam Iqua and surrounding villages went into action and Alaska Air National Guard and US Coast Guard helicopters soon joined the search.
Local search and rescue team members found the children at 4:25 p.m. Monday, and a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter took them to the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Center in Bethel for treatment of severe hypothermia, a condition in which your body temperature becomes dangerously low due to heat loss.
The children are identified as Christopher Johnson, age 14, Frank Johnson, age 8, Ethan Camille, age 7, and Trey Camille, age 2, of Nunam Iqua.
Nunam Iqua, a predominantly Yup'ik village of about 200 people, is located about 500 miles northwest of Anchorage. Locals believe the children became disoriented and lost their way in blowing snow.
A winter weather advisory had been issued Sunday night as conditions deteriorated. The Weather Channel's website states, “A weather station south of the village reported temperatures from about 16 to 27 degrees. Winds blew from 10 to 20 mph, with gusts up to 25 mph, meaning wind chills reached as low as minus 1 degree. Moderate snow was falling.”
What is severe hypothermia?
Everyone has been chilled at one time or another. If their body can’t keep up with heat loss, their body temperature drops. In mild hypothermia, a person will feel cold and shiver. As their body temperature drops, they may become clumsy and drowsy.
Dr. Ellen Hodges, chief of staff at the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation, said severe hypothermia is a medical problem that without treatment can lead to death.
“So in a severe hypothermia, usually the patient has an altered mental status, meaning they're either unconscious or they are confused or they aren't quite sure where they are, that kind of thing. So altered level of consciousness would be the main symptom. They often don't even feel cold anymore because their brain isn't working quite right,” Hodges said. “In fact, when patients who are cold stop shivering, that usually means they're getting more and more hypothermic, if that makes sense. They can be unconscious or confused and they can be not shivering or not being able to get themselves warm.”
Hodges said the treatment for hypothermia is simple.
“Warm the patient up. There's really nothing more to it than that,” Hodges said. “There's various ways of warming a patient. There's active and passive warming, so it depends on how cold they are and how many symptoms they have,” Hodges said. “But yeah, it's not rocket science. You get them warm.”
Hodges has advice on how to avoid hypothermia. “My cautionary note would be to avoid consuming alcohol when you’re going out of doors. Don’t operate vehicles or go out into the cold when you’re under the influence. That would be a reasonable general precaution to everyone,” Hodges said.
“And having a trip plan, this is something our injury prevention people would tell you is to have a trip plan. So, tell people where you're going and when you're planning on coming back and the general route that you're going to take,” Hodges said. “That way, people can tell search and rescue where to begin the search.”
Alaska Natives have the nation’s highest rate of death by unintentional injury
The four children in this incident simply got caught in a winter storm and became disoriented. Fortunately, they were able to find shelter.
Due to an active outdoor lifestyle and a harsh climate, Alaskans experience high rates of death by unintentional injury. And Alaska Natives have the nation’s highest rate of death by unintentional injury at 137.6 per 100,000. That’s twice the rate of other Alaskans and almost 2.7 times the rate of all the United States.
Alaska’s death rate due to unintentional injury was 55.2 per 100,000 in 2017. The rate in the United States as a whole is 49 per 100,000. The Indian Health Service reports unintentional injuries are the leading cause of death among American Indians and Alaska Natives between the ages of 1 and 44 years and the third leading cause for all ages.
Many Alaskans live adventurous lives. They hunt, fish, ski, sled, and skate. They drive cars and trucks on frozen rivers, and travel by boat, on snow-machine, and in small planes.
Unintentional injuries include car crashes, drownings, poisonings, firearm injuries, burns, falls, suicide and alcohol abuse. Children and young adults are most vulnerable to death by unintentional injury, and Alaska has a relatively young population.
Those are numbers health professionals would like to change. Injury prevention specialists work to educate people to make safety a priority.
Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a long-time Alaska journalist and a national correspondent for Indian Country Today.