Bristol Bay area mourns loss of Native leaders

Posted: Friday, October 12, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A day after the crash of a PenAir flight in Dillingham, victims were remembered for their leadership and contributions to the Bristol Bay region.

Nine people on board were killed and one critically injured Wednesday morning after the PenAir 208 Caravan bound for King Salmon crashed shortly after takeoff from the Dillingham airport.

Four on the plane were board members of the Bristol Bay Native Association. Three, including the sole survivor, were association employees.

''Everyone on that airplane was on that airplane because they were serving their families, their communities, their people,'' said Terry Hoefferle, BBNA chief operating officer.

In John Christensen, 61, of Port Heiden and Andrew Abyo, 59, of Pilot Point, the association lost decades of experience.

''Andrew's signature was on the original incorporation papers for Bristol Bay Native Association,'' Hoefferle said. ''Johnny Christensen was serving the association longer than that. Between the two of them, it's 65 years plus.''

Hoefferle and others described Chignik Lake commercial fisherman Richard Takak, 35, as an up and coming Native leader.

''He was a very outgoing, busy young man,'' said his godmother, Virginia Aleck of Chignik Lake.

''He was very unselfish. He was a go-getter,'' Aleck said, open to suggestions, devoted to his wife, three sons and two daughters.

Besides the association, Takak served on the village council and fishing organizations.

''He was always at meetings. This whole month he was going to be gone from home,'' Aleck said.

Carla Grunert, 47, of Chignik Lagoon, died in the crash with her younger son Ross. Carla Grunert was one of 33 first cousins. Another is fellow village Councilwoman Diana Moore.

''They were so close it's almost merciful they went together,'' Moore said of the mother and son. ''I don't think they could have lived without each other.''

Grunert was also the council's administrative assistant. Moore called her a ray of sunshine whose laugh infected the rest of the office.

Moore said Chignik Lagoon is still in shock from the sudden, double loss.

''I'm just happy she was in my life these last years,'' Moore said. ''She enriched my life.''

Hoefferle described Larson, the association's Head Start director, as ''one of those exceptional people you consider yourself lucky to meet once in a lifetime.''

Larson, 36, and Virginia Andrew, 40, were on their way to King Salmon to establish a new Head Start program, the child development program for low-income children and their families.

The program will serve residents as well as people who come to King Salmon to attend a new vocational training center.

Larson also oversaw a demonstration project in seven rural communities, funded with a federal grant, to integrate multiple family services under one umbrella and cut administrative costs.

''The concept was Valerie's,'' Hoefferle said. ''She was excited about beginning work on it this fall.''

MaryAnn Christensen, 49, John Christensen's sister, was a personal care attendant from Port Heiden who worked for the association. She was accompanying Lena Matson, 73, to Dillingham for care at the hospital. Christensen, the lone survivor, remains in critical condition at Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage.

Pilot Gordon Mills, 41, of Dillingham also died in the crash.

The association serves about 10,000 members in 32 Bristol Bay villages. The four board members came from villages ranging from Pilot Point's 100 residents to Chignik Lake's 145.

Aleck said the deaths are deeply felt.

''When you're a little community like this, you're just part of us,'' Aleck said.

''He was a beautiful person,'' she said of Takak. ''It's a big loss to our community. I guess it's heaven's gain.''

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