Searchers in western Alaska look for 7 missing boaters

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Search teams have looked in western Alaska for more than a week without success for seven boaters who went missing while seal hunting.

Quinhagak Tribal Police Chief John Peter said a 22-foot (6.7-meter) aluminum boat with three men left the village Oct. 17 and headed to the community of Bethel, where they picked up four more people.

The group was last seen Oct. 20 on Eek Island, the closest community to Quinhagak.

They had about 10 gallons (38 litres) of gas when they left Eek Island, but Peter said that might not have been enough for the trip back to Quinhagak because the boat was weighed down by the passengers and other objects.

The boat could have capsized, Peter said.

Searchers joined the effort from Eek and from the nearby communities of Kongiganak and Goodnews Bay.

Former tribal police officer Jerry Brown organized searchers in Quinhagak on Tuesday.

“Today we’re trying to get some boats to head down south along the coast line and up north to see if we can find any kind of debris, and check the creeks before the tide goes out,” Brown said.

Alaska State Troopers coordinated the search with the Coast Guard, which dispatched a C-130 airplane and a MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter.

Trooper Spokesperson Megan Peters said the search area was expanded over the weekend after authorities received information that people in similar circumstances had previously reached Nunivak Island, further offshore to the east.

The coronavirus has created challenges in coordinating groups of volunteers while maintaining distance, Peter said.

Quinhagak has experienced one of the largest outbreaks of COVID-19 in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region. Brown said the health emergency reduced the number of people available to look for the missing boaters.

“There’s a bunch of people in quarantine,” Brown said. “We’re not trying to have those guys come around here.”

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some — especially older adults and people with existing health problems — it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

Officials said the missing boaters include Chad Chadwick Sr., Neal Gutleben, Alexie Nose Jr., Michael Sharp, Elizabeth Wassillie, Willie Wassillie and Bernice Waska.