Illinois man Zachary Porter drowns on Turnagain Arm mud flats in Alaska
ANCHORAGE, Alaska — A man who walked on tidal mudflats with friends in an Alaskan estuary became waist-deep in quicksand-like silt and drowned as the tide came in before frantic rescuers could extract him, authorities said.
Zachary Porter, 20, of Lake Bluff, Ill., was swamped Sunday evening during the rising tide and his body was found Monday morning, Alaska State Troopers spokesman Austin McDaniel told The Associated Press. A member of Porter’s group called 911 when they couldn’t get him out, but it was too late, authorities said.
The crash was the latest tragedy at Turnagain Arm, a 48-mile-long estuary carved long ago by glaciers that move southeast from the Anchorage area and parallel a major highway. At low tide, the estuary is known for its dangerous mudflats made up of silt created by rocks pulverized by glaciers. At least three other people have been stuck there and drowned over the years. Many more have been rescued, including someone who was fishing there last month.
Alaska is “big, it’s amazing, it’s beautiful and it’s overwhelming,” said Kristy Peterson, administrator and EMT manager for the Hope-Sunrise Volunteer Fire Department. “But you have to remember that this is Mother Nature and she has no mercy for humanity.”
Mudflats “can suck you in”
Peterson, who answered the call, spoke with other members of Porter’s group but did not speak to him during the desperate rescue attempt.
“When we respond, we respond with the greatest of good intentions and as mothers and fathers and uncles and brothers,” she said. “We are responding with as much passion and vigor as possible.”
Volunteer members of the department will meet later in the week for a debriefing, she said.
“I’ve been in contact with all of my members, and they’re all heartbroken,” Peterson said. “It’s a difficult situation.”
The crash happened near the community of Hope, a scenic community of about 80 people. It’s across the Turnagain Arm, just 22 miles — but a 90-minute drive — from Anchorage.
The estuary travels southeast from the Anchorage area and parallels the Seward Highway, the only highway that runs south and carries tourists from Anchorage to the sports paradise of the Kenai Peninsula.
At low tide, Turnagain Arm is known for mudflats that “can suck you in,” Peterson said. “Looks like it’s solid, but it’s not.”
When the tide rises, the silt gets wet from the bottom, loosens up and can create a vacuum if a person steps on it.
Signs warn people of dangerous waters and mudflats.
“I really have to warn people not to play in the mud,” Peterson said. “It’s dangerous.”
The latest tragedy of Zachary Porter’s death at Turnagain Arm
Some people attempt to cross Turnagain Arm or walk the 9 miles (14 kilometers) from Anchorage to Fire Island at low tide, sometimes causing rescue efforts.
There were other deaths on the mudflats. In 1988, newlyweds Adeana and Jay Dickison were dredging for gold on the east end of the arm when his ATV got stuck in the mud, the Anchorage Daily News reported. She then got stuck trying to get it out and drowned with the rising tide.
In 1978, an Air Force sergeant attempting to cross Turnagain Arm was swept away by the leading edge of the tide. His body was never found, the Anchorage newspaper reported. In 2013, Army Captain Joseph Eros died while attempting to cross Fire Island back to Anchorage.
Earlier this month a man was rescued from the mudflats after his leg got stuck and he collapsed from the waist down while fishing at Turnagain Arm.
Peterson said they got the emergency call after Porter got into serious trouble and it takes time to mobilize. Another department, about an hour away, also responded.
Peterson urged people to call 911 as soon as possible.
“If you think there’s a problem, if you think there might even be a problem, call,” she said. “Because we can move resources, and we’d rather turn around and go home or it’s a disaster.”
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