Processing worker's disappearance a puzzle

Posted: Tuesday, May 01, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Curtiss Weller had a goal. A skilled fish cutter who could push the pace of the slime line, the 27-year-old from North Pole wanted to build a stake through long hours at his new job processing cod in the Unimak Island village of False Pass.

''He had plans,'' said his mother, Fairbanks resident Karen Miller. ''He called me almost every day. He said he was going to stay there until June and then he was going to go down to Oregon and start a new life. He was going to get married.''

''He did a great job, and he certainly had a future with us,'' said Larry Cotter, head of Bering Pacific Seafoods. ''We liked him a lot.''

Weller disappeared March 24 during a blizzard. He was last seen just hours after he finished his night shift on the processing barge along the village pier.

Extensive searches by police, village volunteers and the Coast Guard Cutter Accept have turned up no sign of him. The Alaska State Troopers list him as missing.

''That's what really hurts. It's not getting his body back and not knowing exactly what happened,'' his mother said.

Welder was last seen in the bunkhouse about a quarter-mile inland, in a good mood, asking co-workers if they knew where he might find a beer.

An investigation by trooper Nathan Sheets found no evidence that Welder was impaired that night or had made enemies during the six weeks he lived in the community. People liked him.

''Everybody got along with Curtis, and Curtis got along with everybody else,'' Sheets said.

Though police can't rule out some sort of accident on land, they say it seems more likely that Welder returned to the waterfront to visit one of the fishing boats tied to the pier and then slipped while descending an icy ladder that reaches as much as 25 feet down.

The dock extends 175 feet into the shallow strait between Unimak Island and the tip of the Alaska Peninsula, with a treacherous tidal rip where the Bering Sea spills into the North Pacific Ocean about 650 miles southwest of Anchorage.

That night, the water was 38 degrees, the wind was gusting to 50 mph, and blowing snow swallowed the light. Trooper Sheets described the conditions as ''a black hole.''

''It's just speculation,'' says village public safety officer Bob Shammer, who organized the search in False Pass. ''But if you went in, your chances of survival are very slim.''

No boats were known to have left the island that night, and no planes were flying. Crossing the strait and traveling overland about 40 miles to Cold Bay would have entailed an extraordinary survival trek. Still, Shammer distributed pictures and fliers to harbor and airline offices.

But Miller said her son's belongings included his checkbook and a $100 bill. ''He didn't leave the island,'' she said.

The disappearance shook people in False Pass, Shammer said. Up to 22 people scoured buildings, trails and the waterfront in a futile search over several weeks.

''We had kind of a pretty bad storm the other day, and I thought about this Curtis Welder, and I called down to the (barge) and urged them to have a safety meeting,'' Shammer said. ''I announced on the radio not to go out. 'Stay in and be safe if you can.' So I'll never forget.''

''Anytime something like this happens, it has an impact,'' added Cotter, the processing company executive. ''Everybody needs to be much more aware of where they are. Alaska can be lethal in a whole variety of ways, and sometimes we forget that.''

Miller now believes that she lost her son to the sea in a freak accident. Still, the loss is devastating.

''This is a first for me,'' she said. ''I only had two kids, and he was my first born.''

Welder grew up in North Pole and had lived in Fairbanks, Sterling and Anchorage. He loved to hunt and fish, she said, and was an expert at filleting fish.

He is survived by his brother, Dustin, of North Pole, as well as a grandfather, stepfather and daughter in Sterling and uncles in Oregon, Miller said. She hopes to schedule a memorial service for him in Fairbanks in May, when a little more time has passed.

''I'm not really a churchgoer, but I've done a lot of praying,'' she said. ''I do know he's in heaven. He was a good boy.''

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(Distributed by The Associated Press)



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