Coast Guard recognizes Alaska heroes

17th Coast Guard District NewsJUNEAU, Alaska — Members of Coast Guard Air Station Sitka, Sector Juneau and the Alaska Department of Public Safety recognized three Alaska residents for their role in the 1950 rescue of a fisherman stranded off Chichagof Island during an awards ceremony, Sept. 13, 2011.

Marie Laws, a resident of Sitka, received a Coast Guard Meritorious Public Service Award for her role in the rescue of Helvig Christensen from the wreckage of the fishing vessel Dixie near Chichagof Island on Nov. 18, 1950. She accepted the award on behalf of her sister and cousin, Betty Mork and Tom Allain, who assisted with the rescue. Laws is the only living member of the rescue party.

On Nov. 15th, 1950, Fred Wetche, former mayor of Pelican, his 14-year-old son, Bubby and Christensen were aboard the fishing vessel Dixie. They were returning from a hunting trip and confronted gale force winds and high seas which caused them to run aground. As the boat grounded on the rocks it began to break up and the three were thrown into the near freezing waters. Christensen, the only survivor, clung to Yakobi Rock fighting breaking surf and the tide.

Allain, a 34-year-old commercial fisherman, learned of the situation and asked his cousins Mork, 16, and Laws, 13, to assist in searching for the missing hunters, instead of visiting their aunt and uncle. The unlikely rescue party set off in a 32-foot fishing vessel to an area north of Pelican where the Dixie was last known to have operated.

The rescuers navigated to the area without the aid of communications or modern navigation equipment on the early morning of Nov. 18, 1950. They began searching using a signal whistle to alert possible survivors. They heard a call for help from Christensen and while attempting to recover him their own boat struck a submerged reef resulting in two holes in the hull and significant mechanical damage. Allain launched a skiff and rowed to recover Christensen, while fighting freezing gale force winds.

Mork and Laws fought to keep the vessel afloat using the manual bilge pump and maneuvered the vessel in the steep swells to avoid the treacherous rocks. After the three rescuers successfully brought Christensen aboard they provided first aid during the transit back to Pelican and also continued to pump water from the damaged boat. The rescuers arrived in Pelican at daybreak Nov. 18. Christensen, who was in critical condition, was medevaced to Juneau for further medical care.

“The actions of Allain, Mork and Laws are heartily commended and are in keeping with the highest traditions of those who go to sea readily responding to the needs of their fellow mariners when called upon,” said Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo, commander of the 17th Coast Guard District. “The Coast Guard is proud to recognize these three stalwart Alaskans and the many other boaters who have and will serve as good Samaritans helping those in distress in Alaskan waters.”

Norm Carson, resident of Pelican and former Alaska State Trooper, discovered the accomplishments of Laws, Mork and Allain while researching history on Pelican, noting the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission recognized the rescue of Christensen in 1951. Carson wrote a book about the incident and presented a copy of it to Coast Guard officials in the spring. It was determined these actions warranted the recognition and award from the Coast Guard.

“While such rescue efforts by good Samaritans underway are fairly common in Southeast Alaska due to the remote area, rarely do they depart from the safety of port to venture into danger,” said Capt. Scott Bornemann, commander of Sector Juneau. “Mrs. Laws, her sister, Betty, and Mr. Allain selflessly risked their lives in the service of others over themselves. Such daring and steadfast effort, in the face of ongoing adverse conditions at sea, sets an example for even heroes to achieve.”

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