Alaska EMT Molly Ahlgren died in the line of duty Tuesday, November 30 when a boat transporting her on an EMS mission ran aground on Gavanski Island.
Ahlgren, 47, was responding with the Sitka Volunteer Fire Department to the small island in the Siginake Island Group, where an Alaska State Trooper Recruit class was participating in a survival training exercise. One of the recruits received a laceration to a finger and a request was made for transportation, city officials said.
A fire department volunteer offered to transport EMS personnel to the Island on his personal boat and to return with the injured recruit. The 31-foot vessel struck the island in the dark, officials said, and Ahlgren was thrown forward and died at the scene. The other passenger was hospitalized and has since been released, and the boat operator was treated and released.
Engineer Allen Stevens, acting interim Sitka fire chief, said Ahlgren was a volunteer EMT and member of the dive rescue team. He said she will be remembered for her enthusiasm for her work.
"She was a very intelligent young lady," he said. "You just can't describe her excitement over little things." Ahlgren was a fisheries professor at Sheldon Jackson College, Stevens said, and "She knew the Latin name of every little creature that existed on the ocean floor. She was like a kid in a candy store," he said. "She was the same way here at the fire department."
The incident is under investigation by the U.S. Coast Guard Marine Safety Office and the Sitka Police Department.
Sitka Police Chief Robert Gorder said it is common for rescue workers to respond using their private boats because the city has no watercraft. He said the boat has been inspected for mechanical or equipment failures, but the cause of the crash appears to be operator error, he said. He said the operator did not realize there was a delay between his position as shown by GPS signal and his actual position. In the dark, he did not realize the boat had turned to port and it struck the island at 19 to 20 knots, the chief said.
Gorder said Ahlgren was standing in the companionway at the time of the crash, where several steps lead down into the berth and where you have to duck to avoid the overhead. "When the boat struck the island it threw her violently forward," he said. He said Ahlgren struck her head and continued down into the berth. She broke her neck and died almost instantly, he said.
Stevens said a non-religious memorial service is scheduled for Monday at noon at the Nahkaheeti Clan House, with firefighters and EMTs expected from across Alaska.
The Sitka Volunteer Fire Department is located on an island with no mutual aid. It is a combination department with eighty volunteers and nine paid members, with specialties including mountain rescue, search and rescue and dive rescue in addition to fire suppression. Stevens said the department has been hit very hard in the past year, as they are also mourning the death of an EMS worker who died of cancer.