Earthquake, governor's race mark Alaska in 2002

Posted: Tuesday, December 31, 2002

ANCHORAGE - The year 2002 in Alaska was marked by tragedy in the Bering Sea, groundbreaking for a national missile shield, a contentious governor's race and one of the most massive earthquakes in North America.

It was also the year of some of the weirdest weather on record.

In the largest commercial fishing accident of the year, one crew member died and two were lost in the frigid Bering Sea on Oct. 20 after the Seattle-based Galaxy exploded and caught fire. Two days later a crewman was swept overboard from a ship searching for survivors of the 180-foot Galaxy. The burned vessel apparently sunk, according to the Coast Guard, which was unable to find it despite receiving a satellite signal.

Construction broke ground at Fort Greely in June on six interceptor missile silos as part of a national defense program. Seen as a boon for the economy of nearby Delta Junction, the project grew on Dec. 17 when President Bush announced plans that included building 10 more ground-based interceptors at Greely and four at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., by the end of 2005.

Election politics 2002 became known by the barrage of so-called soft money ads from Outside organizations that blasted the gubernatorial front-runners - Republican U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski and Democrat Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer. The ads were legal because they didn't explicitly ask viewers to vote for or against any candidate. But after the Nov. 5 general election, the Alaska Public Offices Commission adopted a regulation requiring political parties to disclose the source of soft money donations. State attorneys are still reviewing the regulation.

Murkowski, who won by a hefty margin, resigned the Senate seat he held for 22 years, then created a minor storm of controversy when he appointed his daughter, state Rep. Lisa Murkowski, as his Senate replacement.

The Alaska Legislature weathered its share of criticism for dragging out a 121-day regular session over a budget fight that included millions of dollars in bond projects. A fight over extending the Regulatory Commission of Alaska thrust lawmakers into their third special session in June.

Nature came out full force in Alaska in 2002.

One of North America's largest earthquakes rocked the Interior on Nov. 3. The quake sliced a 186-mile scar along the Denali Fault, crossing the Parks and Richardson highways as well as the Tok Cut-off. It split glaciers, cracked roads, knocked over fuel tanks, prompted the closure of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline and was felt as far away as Louisiana.

The earthquake was centered in a sparsely populated area 90 miles south of Fairbanks, so it didn't cause much harm to people or buildings. But it did provide seismologists with a rare chance to better model how densely populated areas might fare in a similar-sized temblor.

Winter was unfashionably late, arriving a good two months behind schedule. While the East Coast shivered, Alaska temperatures soared far above normal, bringing heavy rains and floods. Weather experts blamed El Nino, a warming phenomenon that influences wind and weather patterns.

Until Anchorage awoke to a white Christmas, the city was clad in only a light coat of snow. The other extreme occurred March 17, when the city was buried under 28.6 inches of snow. The dumping far surpassed Anchorage's 24-hour snowfall record of 15.6 inches, set Dec. 29, 1955.

Human tragedies also marked the year.

Shortly after retiring as the state's public safety commissioner, Glenn Godfrey was shot to death in his Eagle River home Aug. 3 by his estranged lover. The woman, Karen Brand, also shot Godfrey's wife, Patti Godfrey, four times. But Patti managed to call 911 as Brand reloaded the gun and then killed herself. The fact that Anchorage police spent nearly an hour trying to find the Godfreys' Eagle River home prompted an investigation by the state Office of Victims' Rights blasting the city's 911 emergency response system.

The effects of the 2001 terrorist attacks continued to linger. While still governor, Tony Knowles created a 25-member state Task Force on Homeland Security that's expected to become a fixture in state government for the foreseeable future. The state was poised to receive nearly a half-million dollars from the federal government to better prepare state and local governments to fight terrorism. And though the tourism industry experienced a lukewarm season, it wasn't the disaster that the state's visitor industry predicted would follow soon after the attacks.

The Exxon Valdez saga continued to drag through the courts, more than 13 years after 11 million gallons of crude oil spilled into Prince William Sound. In early December, a federal judge reduced the punitive damage award against Exxon Corp., from $5 billion to $4 billion - a ruling expected to be appealed. But one chapter was closed in May when former tanker Capt. Joe Hazelwood paid off his official debt to Alaska with a $50,000 restitution check - part of his sentence in his 1990 conviction for negligent discharge of oil. The sentence also had included 1,000 hours of community work service, which Hazelwood completed in 2001 after working three summers at Beans Cafe, an Anchorage soup kitchen.

One of Alaska's oldest and largest fish processing companies, Wards Cove Packing Co., announced in December plans to shut down its salmon operations after 75 years. The decision shook the fishing industry, raising questions about the future of commercial salmon fisheries across Alaska.

The year also saw the death of internationally known artist Frederick Machetanz. The last of Alaska's "old masters," Machetanz built a reputation from an art career that spanned nearly seven decades. He died Oct. 6 at age 94.

The village school in Kivalina was abruptly shut down Feb. 27 amid complaints by some teachers about harassment and physical and verbal threats by students. The school reopened March 18 with five new teachers and a security officer. But little changed, according to a new teacher who left in September. Some locals blamed the problems on cultural misunderstandings.

Three sports stories also made big news in 2002.

In March, Montana musher Doug Swingley announced he was retiring from the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race after winning the 1,100-mile race four times. Another Iditarod veteran, DeeDee Jonrowe, announced she had been diagnosed with breast cancer.

Quite possibly the happiest moment in Alaska sports occurred Nov. 24 when the home team, the University of Alaska Fairbanks, made history, upsetting Weber State to win UAF's own Top of the World basketball tournament. This was the first time the Nanooks, a Division II school, beat all eight Division I teams invited to the annual event.

Fans hailed the team two days later in a victory parade through downtown Fairbanks.

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