Napakiak mourns after two prisoners die in jail fire

The Napakiak Public Safety building in September 2018. The building burned, killing two inmates on May 28, 2019. (Photo by Anna Rose MacArthur / KYUK)

Two prisoners died early Sunday morning when flames engulfed the Napakiak jail. Alaska State Troopers have tentatively identified the victims as Becca White, age 24, and Isaiah Parka, age 22, both of Napakiak.

Napakiak City Administrator Leo Kusayak described the victims as “best friends.” Napakiak is a dry village, and the friends had been picked up for driving a four-wheeler while intoxicated the afternoon before the fire started. The bodies have been flown to Anchorage for autopsy and positive identification.

Two jail guards escaped the blaze. Both were flown to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation in Bethel for medical care. One guard was then medevaced out of state. Alaska State Troopers spokeswoman Megan Peters reports that he is “in serious but stable condition.” A trooper dispatch says that the guard sustained “significant injuries while attempting to free the two prisoners.”

The other jail guard told troopers that the fire began when one of the prisoners set fire to a mattress in a jail cell. The Native Village of Napakiak operates the jail and employs the guards. Napakiak Tribal Administrator David Andrew did not want to comment on the accident.

“This is a big tragedy. The whole community is mourning,” Napakiak City Council member Walter Nelson told KYUK.”  The fire happened so quickly. We tried our best to extinguish it, but it was so intense.”

Nelson says that more than 20 community members, mostly young men, worked through the night to extinguish the blaze, using water pumped from the Kuskokwim River. The jail sits near the river and only one building over from the fire department. Fire marshals, state troopers and an investigator with the Alaska Bureau of Investigation flew to Napakiak to examine the scene of the incident.

City Administrator Leo Kusayak says that the community has been advised not to disturb the building’s remains until the investigation is complete. He says that the city owns a former National Guard armory building that could possibly be used as a jail until another building is constructed.

Community leaders are meeting on Monday afternoon to discuss how to proceed following the fire.

Anna Rose MacArthur is a reporter at KYUK in Bethel.

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