Teen missing offshore

Travis Mason, 16, can't be found after personal watercraft accident near Spuhn Island

Posted: Sunday, April 23, 2000

A teen-age Juneau boy is missing in the frigid waters off the Mendenhall Peninsula.

Police said Travis Mason, 16, and another boy, also 16, departed the north end of Douglas Island late Friday riding one personal watercraft, often referred to by the brand name Jet Ski.

The two teens were headed for Spuhn Island. The pair was reportedly riding the watercraft back and forth between the island and Smugglers Cove at the tip of the peninsula when it capsized, said Petty Officer Roger Wetherell, a Coast Guard spokesman. Neither boy was wearing a life jacket.

The driver of the watercraft, whose name was not released by officials, swam to Spuhn Island to seek help. His brother took him to Auke Bay aboard a skiff. A waiting ambulance took him to Bartlett Regional Hospital for treatment of hypothermia, Wetherell said.

However, Bartlett had no record of treating anyone matching the driver's description, said Charlotte Mielke, nursing supervisor.

The original call to Juneau police came from an Auke Bay resident at 11:25 p.m. Friday. The resident heard someone calling for help and the sound of a boat motor, said Sgt. Tom Wehnes. When police responded, they found several people calling Mason's name, Wetherell said.

At the time of the accident there were steady winds from the southeast at 10 to 15 miles per hour, a temperature of 42 degrees and seas of 3 feet, according to the National Weather Service. It had just begun to rain.

Mason was described by family friend Marsha Kelly as ``a level-headed boy,'' a devout Jehovah's Witness who had demonstrated his knowledge of the Bible ``backward and forward'' Wednesday evening at a Lenten service at Kingdom Hall.

The Masons are a close-knit clan, Kelly said Saturday afternoon, as she gazed out over the water toward Spuhn Island. ``You could see two or three generations sitting in a row in one pew at services,'' she said.

Police concentrated their searches near Fritz Cove Road and Fox Farm Road on Friday evening.

Coast Guard personnel and Alaska State Troopers combed the beaches of the peninsula bay Saturday. Searches were also conducted with boats and aircraft.

Two Coast Guard search and rescue crews boat crews joined the effort Saturday morning, searching the waters around Spuhn, Battleship and Suedla islands.

A rescue boat from the Juneau-based 110-foot cutter Liberty also assisted in Saturday's search.

A National Guard helicopter began flying search patterns at 10 a.m. Saturday, said Chief David Small of the Coast Guard. Search planes were flying so low over the area that Becky Carls, a resident of Fritz Cove Road, feared they might crash into the mountains.

Petty Officer Jim Barber of the Coast Guard said Saturday's search included four handlers, all members of the SEADOGS canine rescue team. Over-water search dogs were used near Spuhn Island. These dogs are trained to sniff out humans who are underwater, using faint scent traces on the surface.

The Coast Guard suspended its air search about 1 p.m. Saturday when the dogs alerted over Battleship Reef. Troopers then hired some local commercial divers to investigate.

``We don't know why the dogs alerted,'' said handler Bruce Bowler of the Southeast Alaska Dogs Organized for Ground Search. ``We just know they alerted.''

Trooper John Chiri led Saturday's search effort. ``We have two divers in the water,'' Chiri said about 3:30 p.m. Saturday. ``We are going to continue to search as long as we have air for them.''

Just before 4 p.m., a new boat joined the rescue, equipped with a towed video camera. Teens were coming and going from the beach at the end of Fritz Cove Road, a popular teen party spot for decades. They leaned morosely against beach rocks, taking no pleasure in the afternoon sun.

Both the Coast Guard and Troopers suspended their efforts about 5:10 p.m. Saturday, with the intention to resume this morning.

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