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US Coast Guard, state troopers honor Sitka woman for 1950 shipwreck rescue

Posted: September 26, 2011 - 12:19am  |  Updated: September 26, 2011 - 11:25am
Marie Laws smiles as U.S. Coast Guard Cmdr. Matt Jones, deputy sector commander, pins a medal on her lapel on Sept. 9 in Sitka. Air Station Sitka commander, Cmdr. Doug Cameron holds the commendation letter describing how Laws helped rescue a shipwreck survivor in 1950, when she was 13-years-old.  James Poulson / Daily Sitka Sentinel
James Poulson / Daily Sitka Sentinel
Marie Laws smiles as U.S. Coast Guard Cmdr. Matt Jones, deputy sector commander, pins a medal on her lapel on Sept. 9 in Sitka. Air Station Sitka commander, Cmdr. Doug Cameron holds the commendation letter describing how Laws helped rescue a shipwreck survivor in 1950, when she was 13-years-old.

SITKA — More than 60 years after helping rescue a shipwreck survivor in stormy seas, a Sitka woman was honored this month by the U.S. Coast Guard and Alaska State Troopers.

Marie Laws received the commendations in a Sept. 9 ceremony at Coast Guard Air Station Sitka. The two other participants in the 1950 rescue, Laws’ sister Betty Mork and rescue boat skipper Thomas Allain, were honored posthumously.

Laws, whose maiden name is Mork, and the two others received the Meritorious Service Award, the second highest honor bestowed on civilians by the U.S. Coast Guard. It is given for showing “unusual courage in advancing a Coast Guard mission,” individual accomplishments that benefit the public, or a contribution that produces tangible results.

Laws was 13, living in Pelican with her family, at the time of the rescue Nov. 17 and 18, 1950. She said she never expected to receive any recognition for the trio’s rescue of Helvig “Chris” Christensen, a hunter who had been stranded on Yakobi Rock for two days when found.

“We went to help our neighbors,” Laws said at the ceremony. “Who knew 60 years later someone would make such a fuss?”

Norm Carson, a retired Alaska State Trooper living in Pelican, tells the story in a book he published earlier this year, “Courage & Death on the Gulf of Alaska: Saga of the F/V Dixie.” After finishing the book Carson brought the dramatic story to the attention of the Coast Guard and the Troopers, suggesting awards by those agencies to recognize the rescuers’ courage.

The author’s son, Kyle Carson, also a state trooper, presented the state citation to Laws at the Friday ceremony. It is signed by Commissioner of Public Safety Joseph Masters.

The Coast Guard citation recounts the rescue story, starting on Nov. 15, 1950, when Christensen, Fred Wetche and Wetche’s 14-year-old son Fred Jr. were returning to their home in Pelican after a hunting trip aboard Wetche’s 40-foot troller Dixie.

The boat lost power in stormy seas as it attempted to round Cape Bingham on the north end of Yakobi Island. The boat was swept onto the rocks and broke up.

Of the three, only Christensen survived, by clinging to a handhold on Yakobi Rock.

On the night of Nov. 17, another Pelican resident, Tom Allain, 34, learned that the Dixie was overdue and invited Betty and Marie Mork, 15 and 13 at the time, to help search for the missing hunters. The Mork sisters, who were related to Allain’s wife, had accepted a ride with Allain on his boat from Pelican to the tiny settlement of Sunnyside, a couple of miles north of Pelican, where they planned to visit their sister’s family.

“The unlikely rescue party set off in a 32-foot fishing boat to an area where the Dixie was known to have been operating north of Pelican ...” the citation said. In the early hours of Nov. 18 they searched around the north end of Yakobi Island, without the aid of communications or modern navigation equipment, using a signal whistle to alert possible survivors.

Before reaching the rescue site, Allain’s boat struck a submerged reef, “putting two holes in the hull and causing significant mechanical damage,” the citation said. But they continued their search.

“In close to impossible conditions, they heard a call for help from Helvig Christensen,” the Coast Guard said. “Fighting freezing gale force winds, Tom Allain launched a skiff and rowed to recover Helvig, while Betty and Marie fought to keep the vessel afloat using the manual bilge pump and maneuvering the vessel in the steep swells to avoid the treacherous rocks.”

Christensen was brought aboard Allain’s boat, and Betty and Marie provided first aid while continuing to pump water from the damaged boat to stay afloat.

They arrived back in Pelican at daybreak Nov. 18. Christensen, who was in critical condition, was flown by Alaska Coastal Airlines to the hospital in Juneau.

“The actions of Tom Allain, Betty Mork and Marie Mork are heartily commended and are in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Coast Guard,” the citation states.

The courage of the three rescuers was first recognized in 1951 when all three were awarded medals by the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission. Marie was a student at Sheldon Jackson School when she received her medal.

In “Courage & Death on the Gulf of Alaska,” Carson writes that Laws did not know of the award before it was presented to her at a school assembly.

“Mr. Wooster, the principal, opened the assembly and announced, ‘We have a hero in our midst,’ ... I wanted to slide under a table or desk,” Laws is quoted as saying in the book.

Carson writes that “true to her modest character, she was overwhelmed by the experience.”

In Sitka, where Laws has lived for many years, she is well-known as an artist and weaver.

Carson’s book is for sale at Murray Pacific and the Sitka Historical Society and Museum.

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