No one knows better the danger that a tense circumstance can present than police in the United States. Constantly under pressure to control people who are guaranteed rights that provide them a wide latitude of no control, the scenarios that citizens can present range from the mundane to sheer terror, even for a trained professional. With that thought, we continue to reflect on moments in the history of law enforcement we wish we could get back, the sacrifices of those that have paid the ultimate price on our behalf.
Alaska, the last great frontier. Untamable, unimaginable. These are the kinds of words that best describe the beauty of a State still layered in evidence of the “Ice Age.” From clear, beautiful rivers, to gorgeous sunrises as backdrops to full, ripe cedars, spruces, and hemlocks. It is a nature enthusiast’s paradise, as much as it is a fisherman’s paradise, as much as it is an off-road vehicle paradise. It encompasses ideas of self-reliance, and independence with the types of characters found among the various back roads, and has a long history of hard work, from oil rigs, to commercial fishing boats, to open sea rescue. For many, it’s their dream to get there. And it can also be the place that makes or breaks them. Some can survive to brutal cold that comes in winter. Some cannot. Some can handle the approximate month of ‘The Midnight Sun,’ where daylight occurs in the northern portion of the State 24 hours day. Some cannot. Some can handle that most of the State is isolated, only reachable by air, if the weather is agreeable that is, and that most opportunities will place them in middle of nowhere. Some cannot. But just as Alaska presents a mountain of challenge to some, it presents a mountain of opportunity to others. As we wrote before, Alaska is place where much of the land is accessible only by air. And as we’ll soon see, flight in Alaska presents some of the worst danger to anyone there.
First Sergeant John David Stimson
First Sergeant John Stimson was an 11-year veteran of the Alaska State Troopers, Fish & Wildlife Protection Division. He was the commander of a patrol vessel known as “Enforcer,” based out of a town called Cordova along the eastern side of Prince William Sound. On Thursday, January 13th, 1983, a distress call was made by Gayle Ranney, a pilot from Kennedy Air Service, based in Cordova. She had to make an emergency landing in a clearing, 15 miles north of the Cordova Airport. She was not injured, but the plane, a Cessna-185 sustained damage to the propeller and landing gear, making the plane inoperable. First Sergeant Stimson volunteer for an air rescue attempt with a civilian helicopter pilot, Gary Wiltrout. The weather had been turning for the worse as Ranney entered Cordova airspace, and during her distress call, she described heavy, blowing snow with 50 knot winds coming from the north.
Around 2:00 PM, a mayday call went out from the helicopter, Stimson radioed that the engine was failing, about two miles from Ranney’s crash location. The whiteout conditions became full-fledged, with up to 90 knot winds, and darkness closing out the day early. The helicopter crashed, and due to the weather, all aircraft was grounded, with re-evaluation in the morning. Unfortunately, the bad weather continued, and rescue operations did not resume until Friday morning. Meanwhile, at the helicopter site, First Sergeant Stimson tried to make Wiltrout comfortable, who sustained broken ribs, and broken vertebrae, and lost consciousness throughout the ordeal. First Sergeant Stimson sustained a dislocated right shoulder, a dislocated knee, and internal bleeding. First Sergeant Stimson continued to expose himself to the frigid conditions, to locate layering material, such as sleeping bags, to protect Wiltrout from the storm. Wiltrout stated after being rescued, that First Sergeant Stimson continued to state that he was ok, despite his deterioration as time progressed. By the time Robert Larson from the Alaska Department of Public Safety arrived during the break in the weather, First Sergeant John Stimson passed away from hypothermia. Wiltrout also sustained frostbite to his hands and feet, but he and Ranney were both rescued by Larson. Without the labored effort by First Sergeant Stimson, Wiltrout would have died, in the exposed cab of the helicopter.
First Sergeant Stimson did not have the traditional path to becoming a law enforcement officer. He’d dropped out of high school, and had moved around as young child several times. In reading his history, it appears the turn in his future was when he joined the Navy, and immediately following his service and honorable discharge, he married Patricia Picht, and had one son, Timothy. First Sergeant Stimson had spent part of his childhood in Arizona, and resided there after his Navy enlistment, hiring on with the Navajo County Sheriff’s Posse, which conducts search and rescue missions. In 1968, First Sergeant Stimson and his family moved to Alaska, and he was hired by the Department of Public Safety in 1972. He started with the State Police, and transferred to the Fish & Wildlife Protection Division in 1976. First Sergeant Stimson was known as a skilled rescue worker, and had received numerous honors for saving people in the ice-cold waters of Alaska, from lost ships at seas, and had routinely put his own life at risk to save others.
First Sergeant Stimson fought through pain, anguish, and hopelessness most likely, to make his final act of rescue one that was complete with generosity, indescribable compassion, and efficiency that sets an example for all officers to follow. Perhaps some of us should follow his example too.
In memory of First Sergeant John David Stimson.