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Remains of tuberculosis victims heading home

Posted: Monday, July 10, 2000

The remains of dozens of Alaska Natives who died from tuberculosis in at a Sitka hospital decades ago are being returned to their home villages this summer.

The 133 bodies had been housed in a pair of converted World War II ammunition bunkers being torn down as part of an expansion project at Sitka's airport. The state is paying to fly the remains in sealed caskets out of Sitka each day for the next month.

The repatriation process began in 1998 and brought to the surface years of unresolved grief, said Bob Sam, who works for the Sitka Tribe of Alaska and was in charge of finding the next of kin.

In the '40s and '50s, tuberculosis devastated rural Alaska. Native victims of the disease from across the state -- many of them children -- were sent to Sitka's Mount Edgecumbe Hospital, which established a TB sanitarium.

''Many of the families weren't aware of what happened after the patients came here,'' Sam said.

Anger resonated in the voices of several relatives who attended weekend ceremonies as remains started being removed from the bunkers, renamed Mermaid Cove mausoleum.

June Degnan came from Florida to honor her grandmother, Annie Martha Degnan of Unalakleet, who died of an unknown illness in 1951. The government treated these bodies with such disrespect because most of the dead were Natives, she said.

''How would you feel if your grandmother was put in a bunker?'' she asked.

She also said she was alarmed that the wrong was being righted only now because the state wants to enlarge the runway and the bunkers are in the way.

Sam said he understands the anger.

''My first reaction to this munitions bunker was shock,'' he said. ''It just didn't feel like this was the right place for these bodies to be.''

But he said he came to understand the position the hospital officials were in.

''All the resources to fight tuberculosis were used to save the living,'' he said. Using the concrete bunkers as mausoleums seemed like the best option at the time, Sam said.

''If the doctors and the nurses didn't do what they did back then with the resources they had, we would be extinct right now,'' he said.

Tony Vaska was 6 years old when his mother left their Kuskokwim River village of Upper Kalskag because she was sick with TB. Rosie Vaska died at Mount Edgecumbe in 1959.

''We were told that she was going to be buried here,'' said Vaska, a former legislator from Bethel who now lives in Anchorage.

It wasn't until he was in college that he learned she hadn't been buried. Her body and those of other hospital patients who died of TB and other causes in the late 1940s to mid-1960s were sealed in the bunkers.

''It was difficult to understand,'' Vaska said. ''It wasn't right.''

Rosie Vaska's remains will be the first in a procession of caskets that will fan out across the state this summer.

Survivors, or at least tribal representatives, have been found for all but two of the bodies. Alaska Airlines will fly the bodies out of Sitka at the rate of four a day for the next month, said Diane DeRoux, a right-of-way agent who worked on the project for the Alaska Department of Transportation.



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