Head tribal clerk Ida Nelson said in a CNN report that a medical evacuation team descended into the darkness on Friday night only to find out there were no runway lights to guide the plane.
The village of 70 people is about 280 miles from the nearest hub city.
LifeMed Alaska crew and the residents came up with a solution in a dangerous, tense situation that could have turned out differently. Dozens of residents assembled cars and 4-wheelers to light the runway so the plane could land and pick up a child who needed medical attention, Nelson said.
“I was feeling nervous, anxious because this is late at night and this is someone’s child,” Nelson said. “The only thing I could think of was how quickly I could get other people here to help because what if that was my baby’s plane?”
Around 20 vehicles came within 20 minutes, with the drivers ranging in age from 8 to about 70, she said. The plane was able to land, load the patient, and take off while the community kept the lights on.
LifeMed Alaska CEO Russ Edwards said it is rural Alaska and things get tricky sometimes.
“Runway conditions, icing, and snow have kept us from being able to land. I don’t recall that runway lights not working has ever kept us from landing,” Edwards said. “Fortunately, the crew and the folks on the ground were able to come up with a safe and creative solution to get on the ground,” he said. “Without all that cooperation from everybody, it wouldn’t have happened.”
Once the plane successfully landed, the residents were told not to move at all. The child was boarded onto the aircraft and the plane took off. The patient made it to an Anchorage hospital in stable condition, Edwards said.
According to the Alaska Department of Transportation South Coast region spokesman Sam Dapcevich, the runway lights have been out since February. The agency has been to the airport three times this year to work on the lighting.
“The lights were damaged over the winter by our snow removal equipment operated by a contractor in the community,” Dapcevich said. “We went out there in early May and corrected the damage and the lights that have been knocked over.”
Dapcevich added that Alaska DOT discovered a wiring problem then and had to wait until the ground thawed out. Last week, they returned to work on the wiring and saw that multiple lights had been run over.
Alaska DOT crews returned to Igiugig on Tuesday to repair the lights, which are now back in service, Dapcevich said.
Nelson, who is a mother to two girls and a foster son, is just glad that the child made it safely. All of that is thanks to the community coming together.
“It’s an ordinary thing to happen here in such a small community,” Nelson said. “And what I’m finding out is that it’s extraordinary to other people — it’s kind of a normal deal.”