INVISIBLE SPACE PLACEHOLDER
Arctic Social Science Program

L I V E S    L O S T

Accident Claims Lives of Researchers in Russian Far East

Dr. Noel D. Broadbent

In late August and early September of 1995, the research team of Steven L. McNabb (Social Research Institute), William W. Richards (Alaska Area Native Health Services), W. Penn Handwerker (University of Connecticut), Richard G. Condon (University of Arkansas) and Aleksandr I Pika (Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow) were conducting fieldwork in Chukotka in the Russian Far East.  This was the final year of a 4-year project supported by the Office of Polar Programs of the National Science Foundation.  The project, "Comparative Study of Social Transition in the North: Alaska and Russian Far East," was a complex analysis of demographic, epidemiologic and domestic transitions based on 18 Native villages in Alaska, the Aleutians, Kamchatka and Chukotka.  The project was a direct result of a Polar Research Board, US National Academy of Sciences, and Soviet Academy of Sciences workshop held in Moscow in 1991.  The goal was to bring together US and Russian social scientists working in the Arctic and numerous successful projects resulted from this interaction.

The McNabb team had planned to travel to the village of Sireniki and back to Provideniya in a walrus-skin boat (umiak) powered by an Evinrude motor.  The local Yupik Eskimo people with them were very familiar with these waters, and they successfully navigated the open seas in good weather, and back to the even calmer waters of Provideniya Bay.  The boat carried 9 people on the return trip and was loaded "in a manner similar to boats which travel to Gambell" on Saint Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea.  In the opinion of the Eskimo Society of Chukotka, who were sponsoring the group locally, the most probable cause of the accident was a collision with a whale.  Both gray whales and Orcas (killer whales) were observed actively feeding in the deep waters of the bay.  A second boat carrying 5 local hunters in another area was also lost that evening and believed to have been damaged in the same manner. 

The evening of September 7 claimed 14 lives. Handwerker, who had remained in Provideniya, reported the research team as missing to the NSF on September 8.  All of these people were experienced in the Arctic, and it is unlikely that unnecessary risks had been taken.  The fact remains, however, that boating accidents claim more lives in the Arctic than any other activity, and Alaska commercial fishing, on multimillion dollar vessels, constitutes the most dangerous occupation in the United States.

The Social Transition in the North Project (NSF Award OPP-92-13137) was unique in combining social, cultural, demographic and health data and information into an integrated analysis, and comparing this material against the backdrop of two political-historical environments.  This basic research study transcends theory and method and will be of great value to international policy makers.  Although we will never recover the original insights of these valued colleagues, every effort will be put into completing the project in the researchers names.  The Alaska Native Science Commission has become the successor institution of the Social Transitions project.  Final year data are being collected and archieves are being established in Alaska and Russia. 

Picture

L-R. Bill Richards, Steve McNabb, Penn Handwerker, and Rick Condon. Richards, McNabb and Condon were lost.
Photo: Penn Handwerker

The goal was to bring together US and Russian social scientists working in the Arctic.

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In the opinion of the Eskimo Society of Chukotka, who were sponsoring the group locally, the most probable cause of the accident was a collision with a whale.

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Skin boats are still used along the Siberian coast as they have been for thousands of years.
Photo: A. Slapins

Although we will never recover the original insights of these valued colleagues, every effort will be put into completing the project in the researchers names.

For more information contact:
The Alaska Native Science Commission, University of Alaska, Anchorage, 3211 Providence Drive, Anchorage, Alaska 99508.

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