TB victims returned home for burial after 50 years

State pays for return of bodies from Sitka to villages

Posted: Monday, July 31, 2000

FAIRBANKS -- Neil John and Hazel Williams have been together for a half-century, although they presumably never met.

The pair died within three years of each other in Sitka at Mount Edgecumbe Indian Health Services Hospital during the tuberculosis epidemic of the 1940s and 1950s. Both were placed in a temporary crypt, with more than 130 others, because there was no money to send them home.

Now that the two finally have returned to the Alaska Interior, their families, who met for the first time while looking for cemetery plots, decided to keep them together by burying them alongside one another last week at Birch Hill Cemetery in Fairbanks.

Before last year, Charles ``Lindy'' John and Ellen Lind didn't know what had happened to their brother and sister. Few death notifications about any of the victims reached families.

The Lind family knows now that Williams died of TB at age 27 in 1948. Likewise, Lindy John has learned that Neil died of the disease three years later at age 29.

About 50 people attended the service where elders, including Hannah Solomon and Howard Luke, spoke briefly.

``When I thought about it the other day, that we are going up to the hill to bury them, it was hard for me to take,'' said Solomon, the aunt of the John brothers, at the church service. ``We waited for this a long time, so I'm glad that we finished this the right way.''

Solomon, whose son also rested in the Sitka crypt, spoke on behalf of Lindy John because he was too broken up to speak. John, 67, is the last surviving member of his immediate family.

Howard Luke, a cousin of Ellen Lind, spoke for her. He said he remembers more about Williams than his cousin does.

``I thank you all for participating,'' Luke said. ``We have to hold hands and guide each other.''

John and Williams are being returned to their families along with a number of others because the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities is emptying the crypt. The World War II-era concrete ammunition bunker, called the Mermaid Cove Mausoleum, is being torn down to make room for a runway expansion at Sitka.

The state is paying for the caskets and transportation and has been sending the victims, mostly Alaska Natives, back to their respective communities around the state, since earlier this month.

At the time of most of the deaths - a period when one of every 28 Alaska Natives was hospitalized for TB - there was no mortician in Sitka. Fear of contagion elicited quick handling of the dead. Bodies were stored in makeshift coffins with concrete used to seal each burial compartment.

The Rev. Scott Fisher, who officiated at the ceremonies, had a personal connection to one of the 12 other victims returning to the Interior.

Fisher's late father-in-law died at Mount Edgecumbe and now will return to Beaver for burial, he said.

Fisher said he had regretted that his father-in-law had no grave for his children to visit. ''(Their grandmother) never had a chance to send them over to fix his grave up for Memorial Day.''

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