Weyhrauch found alive after search

Former lawmaker in stable condition after frigid night

Posted: Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Searchers with a chocolate Lab were combing the shores of Coghlan Island on Monday when they spotted a man in a red coat and muddy pants walking toward them. It was Juneau's former Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch - hypothermic but alive.

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About 17 hours after falling into the 43-degree waters of Auke Bay and disappearing, Weyhrauch had found help. Or help had found him, in the form of two volunteers and a dog named Ki.

The 54-year-old former chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee had survived a cold night on the island after tumbling out of his 14-foot Boston Whaler.

He was transported to Bartlett Regional Hospital by the U.S. Coast Guard and Capital City Fire and Rescue, and by Monday afternoon he was in stable condition and resting comfortably, hospital spokeswoman Michelle Casey said.

Weyhrauch was not accepting calls, and his family declined to comment. But their joy and relief at his rescue was evident when they learned of it via family friend Bruce Bowler at their house in Auke Bay, Bowler said.

Bowler spearheaded a search effort by the Juneau SEADOGS, a volunteer group that joined the rescue effort Monday morning with its dogs. Bowler was consoling the family at 11 a.m. while two SEADOGS teams circled Coghlan Island, which can be seen from Weyhrauch's house.

Lost and found

A timeline of the rescue

• 5 p.m. Sunday: Former Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch drops his son off at their house in Auke Bay.

• 6 p.m. Sunday: Weyhrauch falls out of his boat after hitting his head. He swims to east Coghlan Island, where he spends the night.

• 6:30 p.m. Sunday: Weyhrauch's skiff is found empty near Auke Bay ferry terminal. U.S. Coast Guard begins search and rescue efforts.

• 8:30 a.m. Monday: SEADOGS is contacted.

• 9:30 a.m. Monday: SEADOGS volunteers meet Coast Guard and are taken to Coghlan Island to search for Weyhrauch.

• 11 a.m. Monday: Stacey Poulson, Kirk Radach and his dog Ki find Weyhrauch alive but hypothermic. Coast Guard helicopter sent to island.

• Noon Monday: Weyhrauch checks in at Bartlett Regional Hospital.

"My radio cackled," Bowler said. "It was Kirk Radach, SEADOG Six, who radioed in and said, 'We found him.' There was a short pause. 'He's alive and hypothermic.'"

"I swear, the walls must have moved 10 feet from the 'wahoo!' that came out of there," Bowler said.

Weyhrauch, a Juneau attorney and two-term Republican representative, had been trolling Sunday evening before his mishap. Officials said he had dropped his son off at their house at about 5 p.m., then motored toward Auke Bay Harbor for mooring.

He walked to the front of his skiff to secure a cannon ball then fell, Alaska State Troopers Sgt. Robert Cox said.

"He stepped on some oil, and he slipped and hit his head on the center console, fell sideways, and rolled off the boat and into the water," Cox said. "Of course, the boat was still moving, and he couldn't get back in."

Wearing a float coat, Weyhrauch was able to swim to the island. He was in the water for about an hour, Cox said.

During that time, the vessel Navigator found Weyhrauch's empty skiff about a mile southeast of the Auke Bay ferry terminal. The engine was running.

The U.S. Coast Guard started a search after being notified at about 6:30 p.m. and continued through the night. They deployed a cutter and a helicopter and various other vessels to find him.

On Monday morning, the SEADOGS joined the hunt. The volunteers met at Auke Bay to board a 47-foot Coast Guard ship that took them to the island. Bowler and other investigators laid out maps of the area and decided there was a high probability Weyhrauch was on the island. Two dogs and their handlers went to the island, and one team searched along Auke Bay.

When the volunteers were dropped off on the island, one team headed to the right. Kirk Radach and Stacey Poulson and the chocolate Labrador Ki headed went left to the eastern side. Soon they saw Weyhrauch in his red jacket. His lips were blue, and he was not walking well, Radach said.

"He must have slept in the woods that night, because his pants were muddy and sopping wet," Radach said.

Weyhrauch did not say much because of the hypothermia, Radach said.

Within minutes, the Coast Guard had landed a helicopter nearby. Rescue swimmers placed Weyhrauch in a hypothermia bag, then flew him to safety.

While at the hospital, Weyhrauch and his family issued a statement through Casey, the community relations director. Casey said they asked her to convey their gratitude and appreciation for the people who helped in the search and rescue.

"The couple said that the prayers, outreach and community support are overwhelming," Casey said.

• Ken Lewis can be reached at ken.lewis@juneauempire.com.

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