Zander Maverik Ingram was only weeks from his sixth birthday when he drowned in Port Lions’ town fishing hole on Sept. 5. The accident left many in the Kodiak Island village of 170 in shock, and Zander’s parents grateful to those who took part in his attempted rescue, and who comforted them after.
Zander’s mom, Rory, and sisters Halley, 12, and Ashley, 16, have left Port Lions to reunite with Rory’s husband and the girls’ dad in Eagle, Idaho. Paul was working in Idaho on the day of the accident.
Rory Ingram shared Zander’s tragic story last week with the Kodiak Daily Mirror.
She described her young son as a “tough, tough boy” with an unstoppable sense of adventure. “He always had his cowboy boots on, and he was always ready for anything.”
Rory worked as a nurse practitioner at the local clinic, and said she always took time to get her kids outside to enjoy Alaska. “We really fell in love with the village, the people there and the things we did outside. It’s so beautiful.”
She talked about the accident and the response to Zander’s falling off a slippery rock into the surging creek.
The popular fishing hole is located about 150 feet upriver from Kizhuyak Drive, in Settlers Bay near the causeway. The family was fishing for cohos from the rocks surrounding a 40-foot-by-80-foot pool at the base of a 10-foot waterfall.
“It was a beautiful sunny afternoon, but the water level was very high because of the rain we’d been having,” Rory said. “Zander’s sister caught one, and Zander ran over there to see. I yelled at him to stop, but it’s Zander, and he had to see that fish.”
It was around noon when Zander slipped and fell into turbulent water close to the waterfall. Rory said he disappeared. “The water there is like a siphon, and he went under almost immediately. It just sucks you down.” A nearby fisherman called 911, as Rory and Halley jumped into the water to try and find Zander.
“I had a hold of him by the hair for a moment, but the pull of the water was too strong and I couldn’t hold him,” Rory said. “It felt like an ocean wave under there. You can fight that water, but it’s going to drag you down.”
When Village Public Safety Officer David McElwain arrived, Rory and Halley were climbing out, hypothermic from the cold plunge. “When we were in that water I thought we were done,” she said.
McElwain jumped in and tried to find Zander, but the force of the water was too great for him to swim where he thought the child would be. “I was in six feet of water, but I knew I had to get further out, so I went a second time.”
But the second time, the water pinned McElwain, a strong swimmer, against the steep rocks near the waterfall. “I’ve had 80 hours of water rescue training, where people essentially try to drown you and you fight through it. This was worse than that. I was calm as can be, but it felt like there were three guys down there trying to pull me down.” McElwain said he was probably under water for 35-40 seconds on his second try.
“When I came out the second time, I was seeing stars, I was so close to passing out,” he said. He called off Rory from trying another rescue attempt. “Rory wanted to go back in herself, but I told her no way, don’t jump in, there’s no way I can save you both.”
McElwain said the pool’s basin is undercut about four feet at the base of the waterfall, and that’s where he figured Zander was trapped. As a crowd gathered to help, two more Port Lions men, Brandon Bartleson and Malu Benedicto, volunteered to jump in to try to find him. “Brandon could tell I was pretty smoked after my tries, so we put a rope around him and he tried twice,” McElwain said.
Then Benedicto, a Hawaiian with a lifetime of experience on the water, took his turn. “Malu has everything but gills, and he went in with the rope, and he got Zander off the bottom.”
Rory and McElwain took turns administering CPR to Zander for about 20 minutes before a rescue team from U.S. Coast Guard Base Kodiak arrived and loaded Rory and Zander into a chopper, where Guardsmen tried to revive the boy during the 10-minute flight to Providence Kodiak Island Medical Center. He was pronounced dead at the hospital.
Rory called the men heroes who braved the cold water and thanked them and others who turned out to help. “I was hypothermic, and my daughter was hypothermic and people took care of us. Those three guys who went in the water could have just as easily lost their lives. I’m so grateful to them and to everybody who was there for us.”
McElwain said the pool where Zander drowned is known to be a hazard when the waterfall is running full. “The only reason Rory and Halley didn’t drown was they weren’t tall enough for that current to grab them and pull them down. To say it’s dangerous is an understatement.”
He said the city-owned site is marked a hazard and warns against swimming there. “People know it’s dangerous, but few people know how dangerous it can be.”
Rory said it’s comforting to be back in Idaho and away from the scene of the accident, but she said she wants to return to Port Lions to complete her year-long contract at the local health center.
“The community has been so wonderful. I’m going to come back and finish my contract. I owe them the care they need.”
She said she hopes families who love the outdoors take care when they enjoy their favorite pastimes. “Alaska gives us a lot, but it also takes. We all have to be careful.”