Village turns out for unscheduled landing of Delta flight

Posted: Sunday, March 25, 2001

ANCHORAGE -- The community of Cold Bay nearly quadrupled Friday night when a Delta Airlines jet was forced to make an unscheduled landing in the Alaska Peninsula community 40 miles from the start of the Aleutian Islands.

Delta Flight 79, flying from Los Angeles to Tokyo, carried 220 passengers and an unknown number of crew members when it was forced to land at Cold Bay, a wind-swept, treeless community on tundra 625 miles southwest of Anchorage.

Nearly all of the 65 residents pitched in to find passengers transportation and sleeping accommodations while their aircraft was repaired. Residents opened up their school, collected mattresses, blankets and sleeping bags from around town, and rolled out wrestling mats as makeshift beds for passengers who could not find room at the community's two tiny hotels or at U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service housing.

''We rounded up all the spare bedding and mattresses that were in the community,'' said electric utility owner Gary Ferguson. ''It was an experience.''

Community members provided rice, canned salmon, biscuits and bacon for breakfast Saturday morning before passengers departed.

Delta spokeswoman Tracey Bowen said crew members made the unscheduled landing after they smelled smoke in the cabin.

Delta flew in mechanics Friday night and repaired a shorted-out ventilation motor, Ferguson said.

Emergency medical technician Eric Skansgaard said Cold Bay authorities received word of the incoming aircraft at about 4:45 p.m. Friday and were on the tarmac waiting when the MD-11 jet landed about an hour later.

Cold Bay was built up as a key World War II staging area and once had a military population of 30,000. The state continues to maintain its 10,000-foot runway, Alaska's third largest.

Cold Bay's population was recorded at 102 in December but a downturn in fishing and the departure of an airline serving the community has dropped the population about 40 percent, Skansgaard said.

Ferguson said Cold Bay's runway is an alternative landing site for the space shuttle and it gets at least one emergency aircraft landing a year, usually a cargo jet.

''We all were aware because of our location and the size of our airfield that this could happen,'' Ferguson said of the passenger jet landing. ''This is the first time we've had one that was loaded with people.''

Skansgaard said the jet stayed parked for nearly three hours before passengers disembarked into temperatures in the teens and winds of 30-35 mph.

''We have very possibly the worst weather environment on the planet,'' Skansgaard said. ''We say, 'Even the mud puddles have whitecaps if they don't up and blow away.'''

A caravan of public and private vehicles ferried passengers to two hotels, Cold Bay Lodge and the Weathered Inn. Each normally holds up to 20 guests but took 40 Friday night. Another group stayed in Fish and Wildlife Service housing. The rest of the mostly Japanese passengers spent the night at Cold Bay School.

Skansgaard said passengers stayed up as late as 2:30 a.m. using the school's phone and Internet lines to send messages.

On Saturday morning, Cold Bay Lodge baked about 500 biscuits plus bacon and sausage for passengers. The school has no cooking facilities so community members improvised for the rest of the breakfast.

''All the women in the community brought their rice cookers,'' Skansgaard said, and people pitched in with home-canned salmon.

Passengers reboarded the jet at about 9:30 a.m., he said, and the plane departed for Anchorage an hour later. The jet left Saturday afternoon for Tokyo.

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