Family, residents continue search for missing boaters

Coast Guard called off its search for men from Hoonah, Yakutat

Posted: Friday, September 08, 2000

A distraught Hoonah mother is holding out hope that her eldest child, lost in a Yakutat boating accident this week, is still alive, somewhere.

The Coast Guard suspended its search Thursday night, but local residents continue to look for Erik Kveum, 21, and his cousin Charles Johnson, 40, after their skiff was found overturned Thursday morning.

"They have not declared him dead yet," said Sandy Kveum of Hoonah shortly after 4 p.m. Thursday. Her voice breaking with emotion, she prayed that her son was holed up safe somewhere near Ocean Cape Point, 4.6 miles west of Yakutat.

"He's a great, great, super kid. He was saving up money fishing to go to Bible college," said Steve Brown, general manager of Hoonah Trading, who has known Erik for the past two years. Erik's father, John, works with Brown under the umbrella of Ward Cove Packing.

Thursday, John Kveum and his younger son, Sean, 15, went to Yakutat to join the search for the missing boaters. Sandy Kveum stayed home with Sara, 12, and thought about Erik's plans to attend the University of the Nations, an outgrowth of Youth with a Mission, in Kona, Hawaii. The family moved to Hoonah permanently in 1993, she said, but "we've been employed in Alaska since 1974."

Chuck Johnson and Erik Kveum took a ride Wednesday in a 19-foot open Fiberglas skiff to check their set net sites off Ocean Cape Point. They were reported three hours overdue about midnight by Johnson's wife, Pauline, who said the men did not have life jackets or survival suits.

The village public safety officer from Yakutat sent out the vessel Survey Point with a police officer and divers aboard. When they had not found anything by 4:30 a.m. Thursday, the Yakutat Search and Rescue squad was called to assist.

A Coast Guard helicopter from Cordova was on the scene about 6:30 a.m. About 7:20, several searchers spotted the overturned skiff four miles offshore. There was no sign of the men.

A second helicopter crew, from the Coast Guard's Air Station Sitka, joined the search and rescue effort Thursday afternoon, covering an area of Yakutat Bay between Cape Sitkagi and Disenchantment Bay.

The weather Wednesday evening near Yakutat was mild, according to meteorologist Laura Furgione of the National Weather Service. It was mostly cloudy, with nine miles' visibility. The temperature at 9 p.m. was 51, dipping into the mid 40s overnight. Winds were south at six miles. About 10 p.m., light rain began, continuing for the next five hours, Furgione said.

Pauline Johnson was sleeping in exhaustion this morning, as Chuck's sister, Sherry Wegner, manned the phone. Pauline's sister, Bernice Trago of Juneau, who had flown to Yakutat to keep her company, said hope was still high.

"The Coast Guard was amazed and surprised at how many people there are out there. In a community this size, everyone pulls together. There are people on the beaches walking, and searching in boats and on four-wheelers," Trago said. The Johnsons are 14-year residents of Yakutat.

The Coast Guard suspended its search for the missing men about 9 p.m. Thursday, said Petty Officer Roger Wetherell.

"We saturated that area with a couple of helicopters, the VPSO and troopers. We went over and over that 15-mile stretch of Yakutat Bay and found nothing," he said.

However, local residents plan to continue their search for another two days, Trago said.

"Chuck would give you the shirt off his back; he will be missed," said Pete LePlante, manager of Delta Western, the company for which Johnson had delivered fuel for about four years.

Private planes still are circling the area, said trooper spokesman Greg Wilkinson this morning. "But weather is preventing searchers from pulling up the set nets to see if the bodies are tangled there," he said.

Many families in Hoonah are still grieving for Ronald Ely and Stephen Lindoff, who died July 31 in a logging accident.

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