Permafrost expert, military pilot among 4 dead in North Slope helicopter crash

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Justin Germann, killed in a July 20, 2023 North Slope helicopter crash, in Hatcher Pass near Wasilla. (Alyssa Marie Enriquez via AP)

helicopter crash in Alaska took the lives of a permafrost expert from the Netherlands, a pilot who recently transitioned from the military to fly charter helicopters and two other scientists conducting field work in the North Slope, one of the remotest regions in the U.S.

Ronald Daanen, 51, and Justin Germann, 27, both from Fairbanks; Tori Moore, 26, of South Bend, Indiana; and pilot Bernard “Tony” Higdon, 48, of North Pole, Alaska, all perished last week when the 1996 Bell 206 helicopter they were in crashed into a lake while they were on a scientific mission.

The three passengers were employees of Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources, working in the Division of Geological & Geophysical Surveys.

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This photo provided by North Slope Borough shows an aerial view of a shallow lake where a helicopter crashed on Alaska’s North Slope near Utqiagvik, Alaska, Thursday, July 20, 2023. (North Slope Borough via AP)

Alaska search and rescue divers recovered the bodies of all four on Sunday from the sunken wreckage of the aircraft, which went down in a shallow lake about 50 miles south of Utqiaġvik. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the accident.

Daanen, a native of the Netherlands, had an ever-present smile and was also known as MacGyver because he could instantly fix anything that went wrong, whether it was repairing a generator or fixing a broken tent pole, colleagues said.

“He’s such a good-natured guy, he’s kind, he’s caring, he’s good-humored,” said Howie Epstein, a professor in environmental sciences at the University of Virginia. During summer field work, they studied permafrost and changes in Arctic tundra in Canada, Alaska and Siberia.

When working on the North Slope, Daanen brought his homemade gin flavored with spruce tips, which Epstein said was “delicious.” On a tiny island in Siberia, Daanen walked in with a chunk of gouda cheese the size of a curling stone, which they ate from at every meal for a week.

Daanen and his wife, Ina Timling, also competed in the World Ice Art Championships in Fairbanks. They created elaborate ice sculptures that usually had a science theme, using it as an educational opportunity to teach people about permafrost and Arctic landscapes, said Anna Liljedahl, an associate scientist with the Woodwell Climate Research Center and an affiliate professor at University of Alaska Fairbanks.

“We’ve lost an amazing friend and colleague,” she said of Daanen, who was a geologist for the state.

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Ronald Daanen, killed in a July 20, 2023 North Slope helicopter crash, researching permafrost north of Teshekpuk Lake in 2015. (Benjamin Jones via AP)

“He had a lot of amazing friends up there, and we can’t wait to meet them,” she said.

Moore was a 2019 graduate from Indiana with a degree in geological and earth sciences. She wrote on her LinkedIn page that she was “interested in biogeochemistry, planetary science, environmental science.”

Her family declined to comment on her death.

Higdon became a full-time pilot in November, going to work for Maritime Helicopters. He had over 2,000 hours combined while flying Bell 206, Bell 407 and Eurocopter EC145 helicopters.

In a statement, the company praised Higdon: “We all knew Tony as the consummate professional and a skilled pilot. He will be greatly missed.”

He previously worked in different capacities at Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks after serving more than 13 years as a military police officer with the U.S. Marine Corps.

Attempts by The Associated Press to reach Higdon’s family were unsuccessful.

AP researchers Jennifer Farrar and Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed to this report.

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