Glen Daniel, an AVCP Regional Housing Authority mechanic, was walking 50 feet behind a construction vehicle on the frozen river when he saw the excavator suddenly break through the ice.
Daniel watched helplessly as Lee Wilson, his boss, and the driver of the rig, jumped from the sinking vehicle as it fell in the water.
“Better [to] not lose life than the equipment, and I was really glad that everybody was safe,” said Daniel.
Daniel, Wilson, and the pile driver, as the rig is sometimes called, were traveling downriver to the village of Kongiganak after working on a housing development in Tuntutuliak for AVCP Housing.
The tractor, which can stand 30 feet tall, was the only thing damaged in the accident, spilling some of its oil into the river. No one has yet determined how much, but many Tuntutuliak residents get their water directly from the river.
“I sent my son to get water a couple days ago and when I went to taste it I could taste the scent of diesel,” said John Pavila, who lives in Tuntutuliak and works for the Traditional Council there.
Pavila says the Council has posted warning signs around the village to not use the contaminated water and that the Council has not been involved in the clean up effort at the suggestion of the Coast Guard.
Petty Officer Francis Castleton of the Cost Guard says the Guard has advised the owner, Wilson, to wait until the ice has melted to fish out the pile driver and says the Guard will not provide assistance.
The Guard also says the amount of oil leaked into the river is insignificant to harm residents but the situation could change if the gas tank of the vessel is further compromised.
The owner, Wilson, says he’s taken responsibility for the accident and plans to remove the excavator as advised by the Coast Guard. He says he has no clear timeline for that clean up.
AVCP Housing declined to interview for this story. The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation did not return calls for information by the time this story was published.