Twenty Years Ago Today: Rescued in Alaska
Today is the twentieth anniversary of an unforgettable experience.
In 1989, I’d spoken at a missionary conference in Palmer, Alaska. Afterward, we were headed north to Galena, on the Yukon River, by small plane. My ten-year-old, Karina, and I were flying with our missionary friend, Barry Arnold, and his daughter, Andrea, also ten. Nanci and our daughter Angie were leaving with the rest of Barry’s family an hour later in another plane, taking a different route.
Well into the flight we were cruising over a beautiful waterfall at three thousand feet, when suddenly the engine lost power. We saw smoke. Realizing that there was no oil pressure, Barry had to shut off the engine, which looked like it was about to burn. Suddenly we were descending rapidly in a rough mountain pass where there was no place to land. It looked like we wouldn’t make it.
By God’s grace, Barry spotted just the right strip to come down on, dodged the rocks in a beautiful emergency landing. Had we been only a few miles farther, there would have been nowhere to land. We would have crashed. I will always thank God that my friend Barry was a skilled pilot—but as he has said later, this situation was bigger than his skills; we needed God to intervene, and He did.
We landed at 4:30 P.M. Barry couldn't reach anyone by radio, but set off the emergency locator transmitter. We put rocks out to form an SOS, set up shelter, ate C rations, and prayed for our families, who would soon realize we were down but wouldn’t know we were alive. Then we waited, hoping and praying that we would be rescued before the black cold night came upon us.
Barry had sleeping bags for all of us, and we could have survived for some time. But our hearts were with our families who didn't know where we were. As it turned out, because the locator transmission appeared to place the plane in a glacier several miles away, the search and rescue team, Vicki and Nanci had no reason to believe we had survived. We found out later they were searching mainly for a plane wreck. Nanci and Angie, who was only eight years old, talked about the possibility that Karina and I might be in Heaven.
In the next hours we saw three planes. Two were commercial flights, flying high. They weren’t listening to the emergency frequency, didn’t see our SOS or fire, and didn’t notice us waving white flags. The third airplane could have seen us, but the pilot wasn’t looking.
It got darker (though in August in that part of Alaska, darker wasn't that dark). We prepared to spend the night.
At 10:30 P.M. a search and rescue plane saw our flare. After we’d been seven hours on the ground, near midnight, a huge craft descended from above, bright lights piercing the darkness. It was a search and rescue helicopter.
The pilot got out and flashed his broad grin. He was a welcome sight! He said, “We expected wreckage. We didn’t think you’d be alive.”
We found out later there were four airplanes and two helicopters combing the mountains looking for us. And the last plane was headed home when the pilot felt prompted to fly over our area, which wasn't where the signal seemed to be coming from. Otherwise, we’d never have been found that night. God did other things to care for us, including providing pure fresh water gushing up from the ground, in an area where all the rest of the water was extremely muddy.
I still remember the squeals of delight from our ten-year-old girls as that big military helicopter with its powerful searchlight and deafening roar landed only forty feet from us. (You see a little of this in the video below.) I’ll never forget the sense of wonder and gratitude. When they took us on board and flew us to spend the night in a hunting lodge, it was an indescribable feeling.
I know what it means to be unable to make it out on my own. I know what it means to be overlooked by those unaware of our plight. And I know what it is to be found by someone searching, someone with resources we didn’t have but desperately needed.
We would have done much better in the Alaskan wilderness without our rescuers than any of us can do without God. Left to ourselves, we’re utterly helpless and hopeless. We can’t lift a finger on our own behalf. We’re lost in sin’s wilderness, stranded, trapped in a remote ravine. No one can hear us. There’s no way out. Left to ourselves, we’ll die.
Unless someone comes down from above, to rescue us.
That’s our only hope. And that’s the gospel—God heard our cries; He searched for us, found us, and paid the ultimate price to deliver us.
I thank God that He preserved our lives twenty years ago. I look at what He has done over all these years, I look at our daughters and sons-in-law and grandsons, and am so grateful for what happened that day. God doesn't always spare His children from tragedies, as some of you well know. But when He does, we should be profoundly grateful. And we are. In fact, next week (didn't work this week) our family is getting together with the Arnold family and good friends to recall and celebrate God's goodness that day.
Here's a five minute video that captures some of what happened that day, starting from where we took off in Palmer, Alaska. Nanci and Vicki are in the opening, and our younger daughter Angela, then eight is in the plane with Karina, though she got out to make room for Andrea, so wasn't on the flight. Barry Arnold—then a missionary and now a pastor at a wonderful church called Cornerstone, here in Gresham, Oregon—wrote the little intro and a few captions. I shot the video footage from the front passenger seat, until just above the ground when Barry yelled, "It's gonna be rough!"
(Click here if you're unable to view the video.)