With a ski plane and a plywood gurney, friends rescue Dillingham man badly injured in snowmachine crash

Snowmachiners in silhouette, parked next to a wrecked snowmachine
Snowmachiners who responded to an accident near the Iowithla River. March 20, 2022. (Photo courtesy of Ian Fo)

It wasn’t the first time Kortnie Horazdovsky had gotten a call from the International Emergency Response Coordination Center. Her brother, Kaleb Westfall, had used his inReach satellite messenger to call for help when he got caught in a sudden storm while fishing last June. On Sunday, he pressed the SOS button again. Horazdovsky said he had also sent her a one-word message: “Crash.”

“I was like, ‘Oh, boy, here we go,’” she said. “He’s not on a boat this time. But, you know, I didn’t know what he was up to out there. I figured he was snowmachining.”

Westfall was at the top of the Iowithla River in the Muklung Hills, about 50 miles north of Dillingham. He had crashed after hitting a creek bed and seemed to be in rough shape.

“He was texting another friend from his inReach the whole time, just kind of one-word answers. Things like ‘serious injury,’” she said. “So it was a little concerning, because he was just one word answers. And it sounded pretty bad. He thought he had broken his femur.”

Horazdovsky got in contact with some of Westfall’s friends, and the rescue center contacted the state troopers at 4:45 p.m. on Sunday.

Troopers requested help from local rescue teams and sent for a helicopter from Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson in Anchorage, more than 300 miles away.

But volunteers got there first.

Ian Fo was one of the first to arrive on the scene. He often snowmachines with Westfall. He got a call from Horazdovsky and the troopers Sunday afternoon.

“I automatically just started getting dressed and was in contact with the trooper and he was gonna contact some people and let me know what the plan was,” he said.

Fo rallied three friends, and they set out for the crash site on snowmachines. The group found Westfall conscious but badly bleeding from his leg and face when they reached him shortly before 8 p.m.

“We just kept him warm, we brought some blankets and we started a small fire and waited for the helicopter, it was going to be on its way,” he said.

They also contacted pilot Gabe Davis, a friend who was out flying in his Cessna 185, a small plane equipped with skis to land on snow. Davis said one of the snowmachiners, Mark Schwantes, told him Westfall had activated an SOS signal.

“He told me about where he was,” he said. “I know the trail. So I went over and tried to find his trail and I found it, and I saw him. He had damaged his snow machine. I mean, I could see blood on the snow and he was in pretty rough shape.”

Davis had to fly to Dillingham and unload his plane so it was light enough to get back to the scene.

“By stroke of luck, the guy I was with who’s a friend of mine who came up for vacation to see Alaska is a fireman and first responder,” he said. “When we got back to Dillingham we had some lumber, and so we grabbed some sheets of plywood and some two-by-fours to make a backboard and stuff. So we took off, went back and landed. By the time we got there the second time the snowmachiners were there.”

The group of snowmachiners told Davis a trooper helicopter was on its way from Anchorage. But three hours after the accident was first reported, it hadn’t arrived yet. Davis didn’t think they should wait.

“I said, ‘F*** that, we’re putting him in the airplane and getting him out of here,’” Davis said. “It was after eight o’clock at night.”

The volunteer rescuers made a makeshift plywood gurney and loaded Westfall into Davis’ plane. He was flown to Dillingham, then medevaced to Seattle.

Horazdavsky said her brother has multiple broken bones in his face, bruised lungs and a gash on his leg, but he’s in stable condition.

“He’s awake. He’s texting. He’s in good spirits. He told me he looks worse than he feels,” she laughed. “So that’s good. And, yeah, we’re just really thankful that it ended up this way.”

After Westfall was flown out, volunteers with Dillingham Search and Rescue arrived and brought his snowmachine back to Dillingham.

Fo said that over the several hours they were out there, it felt like everything was a matter of life and death — a few strokes of good fortune made all the difference.

“I think it was extremely important that the airplane was there,” Fo said. “[Davis] happened to be in the area, and he happened to be working on a project himself. So he had adequate supplies on the plane, including a first aid kit as well as a friend who is a firefighter EMT, so that was a huge help. The fact that he had supplies on his plane for us to make something to transport Kaleb about 300 yards to the plane.”

But luck only goes so far. Fo said the rescue wouldn’t have been possible without quick thinking from everyone involved and the competence of the region’s outdoor community.

“It makes me feel just really grateful and confident in the people in this community that have the skills and the wherewithal and just the decision-making at the time in the moment,” Fo said. “It gives me so much confidence in the people in the community.”

He said they came together with their skills and experience to save Westfall’s life.

[Sign up for Alaska Public Media’s daily newsletter to get our top stories delivered to your inbox.]

Previous articleAaron Burmeister is stepping away from competitive mushing
Next articleASD wants to increase diversity at its charter schools. Parents say transportation is a challenge.