The turboprop jet was on fire when Gilbert Pelowook woke up.
"He was the first to become conscious after the crash," writer Nancy Ferrell said. "He started dragging people out of the plane. It could've exploded at any moment."
Ferrell called Pelowook's rescue of 19 people one of the greatest stories she encountered writing her new book, "Alaska's Heroes: A Call to Courage." The book tells of the recipients of the Alaska Award for Bravery-Heroism. Ferrell will sign copies of her 12th and latest book from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 19, at Hearthside Books in the Nugget Mall.
In 1965 the state Legislature authorized the governor to recognize heroic and valorous deeds by Alaskans. The award has been bestowed 30 times. Heroes have been trained professionals - Coast Guard and law enforcement personnel risking their lives in the line of duty - and ordinary children and adults who responded to emergencies, risking and sometimes even losing their lives.
The stories come from Juneau and Ketchikan, in the seas off Sitka and Cordova, in the air above Alaska and on the roads and wilds of the Interior.
Ferrell worked on the project for six years. She pored over musty records in the state archives, tracked down witnesses, survivors and heroes, interviewing more than 100 people.
"I talked to most of the survivors that are still alive," she said.
She interviewed airline pilot Don Peterson 30 years after his Boeing 737 was hijacked after leaving Anchorage, the only skyjacking in Alaska, Ferrell said.
"He told me a lot of things, personal things," she said. "There are lots of little details, things that don't come out in the news at the time."
She tells of 13-year-old Evans Geary who dove into a frozen lake to rescue a friend after an ice-skating accident. Geary not only pulled the limp 9-year-old boy from the frigid water, he and another teen applied their newly learned CPR skills to revive the unconscious child.
Pelowook, a trooper on St. Lawrence Island, was returning home to Gambell from Nome when the jet he was on crashed just outside the town in 1975. There were 29 people aboard.
When Pelowook came to, the plane was burning. Struggling through the debris, he found a door and grabbed a piece of flat metal to shield himself from the spreading flames. Injured and in shock, he began dragging people out of the plane.
After pulling eight people outside, his skin began burning. He kept going back in, each time venturing further back into the smoke-filled fuselage. He pulled 19 people out before a series of explosions destroyed the plane, killing 10 people. The off-duty cop was credited with saving 18 people, at great risk to himself.
"It's really inspiring," Ferrell said.
"There are a couple Coast Guard things in the book and you would not believe what these men do," she added.
Ferrell is a former librarian who writes fiction and nonfiction for youth and adults. She plans to travel to the Interior later this month to promote the book.
"I'm also doing signings in Fairbanks and Anchorage," she said. "They've invited some of the heroes. Some don't want to be involved, and some don't consider themselves heroes - they were just doing their jobs, they say - but they certainly are."
"Alaska's Heroes: A Call to Courage" is available at Hearthside Books for $13.95.
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