With a crowd of about 150 on hand, the Olympic flame arrived in Juneau this morning for its first visit to Alaska.
At 8:30 a.m., the doors to a SkyWest plane opened and SkyWest CEO Jerry Atkins carried the flame off the plane in a miner's safety lantern.
Once on the tarmac, he passed the flame to state Sen. Ben Stevens, who lit the first torch, which was carried by Eric Forst of Juneau on a lap around the Juneau Airport.
From there the torch was passed to Erik Drygas of Fairbanks, part of the procession of 51 2002 Olympic Torch Relay torchbearers in Juneau.
One of the early torchbearers was Robert Forgit of Anchorage, who carried the flame by the Nugget Mall.
"This is incredible," Forgit said after he passed the torch to Jody McCarrey of Anchorage. "The best part about this is this is the first time it's been in Alaska and no one else is carrying it at the same time."
One of the hundreds of bystanders watching the flame pass was 6-year-old Jackson Pavitt, who said the torch was more elaborate than he expected.
"It was pretty good," Pavitt said. "I thought it would look more like a stick."
The charter flight carrying the official flame arrived early this morning and a back-up flame was brought from Seattle as carry-on baggage on an Alaska Airlines flight Wednesday night. The flame was scheduled to arrive at Centennial Hall about 11 a.m. for a citywide celebration.
According to Olympic Torch Relay protocol, the torches can be lit only from a flame that can trace its origins back to when the Olympic cauldron on Mount Olympus, Greece, was lit by solar energy in December. To guarantee there's an Olympic flame available for problems along the route, four safety lanterns were lit from the Olympic flame and carried along the relay route as back-ups.
Torchbearers met during a Wednesday night reception at the Baranof Hotel.
Ethel Lund of Juneau, who was to carry the torch across Juneau Harbor in a Tlingit canoe, said she was ready for her part of the relay.
"I've paddled with the ladies team, so I'm not uneasy about being on the water," said Lund, 71. "I'll be representing my clan and my people, and they didn't let rain or snow stop them. We've got the Alaskan spirit."
Several torchbearers at Wednesday's gathering were just learning their parts in the celebration. Eric Forst of Juneau and his wife, Tracy Forst, found out Tuesday night they'd both be carrying the torch. Eric said it took him about four tries to convince his parents he'd been selected to carry the torch, but his parents were flying in from California to watch.
"We were already planning to watch the torch relay, and we were real excited to have it here in town because it's a great opportunity for Juneau," he said. "We were just floored when they asked us to carry the torch. I don't have the words to describe it."
Another new torchbearer was Jerry John of Toksook Bay. John, 19, was born three months prematurely and spent the first 2 1/2 years of his life in the hospital because of fragile health, which had doctors worried he might have mental retardation and other health problems. John has since graduated from high school and plans to attend the Alaska Job Corps center in Palmer to study electronics.
"Amazed," John said when asked how he felt about the nomination. "The torch means freedom. I'm running for disabled people and people who can't find jobs and to prevent abuse."
Mark Bennett of Salt Lake City, Utah, is a former Alaska resident who will carry the torch in Juneau. A graduate of East Anchorage High School in 1976, Bennett said he won the Alaska state hang gliding championship in 1977 and that led to six appearances in the world championships as a member of Team USA. Bennett works for the tourism industry in Utah, but said he was impressed by Juneau's beauty.
Joy McDonald of Fairbanks will be the Alaska torchbearer featured in a daily series of Olympic Torch Relay vignettes on NBC television tonight, airing during the show "Don't Shoot Me." McDonald is a 64-year-old grandmother who plays women's hockey on a team with her five daughters, her daughter-in-law and four granddaughters.
"It's going to be great," McDonald said of the torch relay. "My grandson (Sean Paul Lyle) goes to Catholic school (Immaculate Conception School) in Fairbanks, and he told me he lit a candle for me. I asked him if it was to keep me safe on my trip, and he said it was to make sure I didn't trip and drop the torch."
One of McDonald's neighbors, torchbearer Linda Hayes of North Pole, could have used a candle to keep her safe on her journey to Juneau.
Hayes, a breast cancer survivor, was driving to the Fairbanks airport with her nominator Tina Kestner and friend Patty Mentzel when they hit a patch of black ice and overturned their car. Hayes said the three friends were taken to the hospital, but Mentzel and Hayes tried to tell troopers they didn't have time to be checked out and really needed to make their flight. Kestner, who didn't make the trip to Juneau, had the worst injury, a large bump on her head.
"Tina had sandbags in the car, and we ended up with sand in our hair," Hayes said. "I've got big old bruises back here," she said as she patted her hip, "and it's only for the grace of God we're not dead.
"This is a great honor and it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and Patty was telling me I wasn't going to miss it after all we went through."
Charles Bingham can be reached at email@example.com.