Mark Kasayulie just wanted his sons to see the fireworks. Last New Year's Eve, he and his wife piled their three young sons onto their sled and started weaving their way up the ice road towards Akiachak. Victoria Lomack, Kasayulie’s sister-in-law, was traveling with them.
"Mark would constantly check on us to see if we were good on the sled," Lomack remembered. She put her earbuds in for the long drive. "I was listening to music; I had my eyes closed," she said. "It happened all of a sudden."
She felt the snowmachine lurch, then careen as Mark Kasayulie tried to brake. "I felt floating in the sled," Lomack said. "And then all of a sudden water started coming in, and I tried my best to come out. And then all of a sudden we fell in the water."
The water felt cold and warm at the same time. "I was screaming and hollering for my nephews," said Lomack. Her nephews and sister crawled onto the ice and tried to pull Lomack out too, tying their coats together into a soggy chain. She said that they started to drag her out of the water. She was shivering; they all were.
"When I couldn’t stand anymore, I just decided, 'I’m just going to lay down,'" Lomack said. "And I closed my eyes because I couldn’t keep them open anymore."
They were huddled together when Bethel Search and Rescue found them, drenched and hypothermic near the edge of the water. Mark Kasayulie, the father of the family, slipped beneath the ice and didn’t make it. And if Bethel Search and Rescue volunteers Tom Martini and Jeff Evon hadn’t shown up when they did, the rest of the family wouldn’t have made it either.
Lomack remembers hearing Martini and Evon arrive. She remembers recognizing them, and last Thursday she joined Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta community members at Bethel Search and Rescue’s headquarters to thank them. Alaska’s state legislature has recognized Martini and Evon for their heroism with a legislative citation and on Thursday, Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta residents did whatever they could to thank them.
Search and Rescue Vice President Perry Barr interrupted the group's Thai food dinner. "Tom, put down your fork," he said to Martini. "I’m gonna embarrass the heck out of you guys, so don’t run away, okay?"
He was holding two framed legislative citations from the Alaska State Legislature. Martini and Evon stood sheepishly stood next to him. The citations were signed by House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, Senate President Pete Kelly, and Senator Lyman Hoffman, who sponsored the awards. Barr said that Hoffman played a key role in the process, but the process was confusing. Barr didn’t even know that Martini and Evon had been awarded citations until the certificates arrived in the group's post office box a few weeks ago.
Plenty of people showed up to thank Evon and Martini for their heroism. Bethel Mayor Rick Robb, Police Chief Burke Waldron, and Fire Chief Bill Howell each made speeches.
"What does it take to save a life?" said Howell, when it was his turn to speak. "It doesn’t take some kind of amazing heroism or some kind of superhuman strength. You need to show up. And that’s what it takes to save a life."
Tom Martini and Jeff Evon looked embarrassed; they don’t like to talk about what happened. To save the Kasayulie family, Martini tied a rope around his waist and crawled out onto the ice, trying not to crack it. Victoria Lomack had somehow slid back in the water, so Martini dragged her to safety and then gave her his jacket. It was his first search and rescue. When his turn came to speak, Jeff Evon said that it was a hard one. He and Martini saved five people that night, but they still think about Mark Kasayulie, the man they lost.
"I knew the guy," said Evon. "I knew Mark. I didn’t know who the family was, and when his wife said my name I almost froze up."
After saving Mark Kasayulie’s family, Martini and Evon went back to search. Evon dredged the body of his friend from the river a day later; neither he nor Martini expected to be thanked. Victoria Lomack listened to the speeches quietly, then she stood up to speak herself.
"Usually I don’t like saying a lot in front of people," she said. "But I’m really glad that we’re here."
After the awards ceremony, Lomack quickly gave Martini and Evon a hug. The rest of her family couldn’t make it, she said. Mark Kasayulie’s death has been hard on them, but it was important for her to be here. "I can’t thank them enough," Lomack said, "but I can thank them a lot."
Martini and Evon had shown up for her once, she said. Now it was her turn to show up for them.