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On Alaska's Copper River, children adrift on runaway raft make miraculous escape

Diane JeantetThe Cordova Times

Everything was going well for Daniel Montoya and his three children: Isabella, 10; Daniel, 13, and their elder sister Niki, 14. The family, who lives in San Diego, had arranged to meet up in Alaska with a longtime friend, Edward Ercoline from Fairbanks. Ercoline was the owner of a 19-foot-long, custom-designed river raft that the five of them would raft down the Copper River.

Montoya and Ercoline had served together as paratroopers in the U.S. Army back in the late 1970s. They had navigated these precarious waters in the past but hadn't been back in a few years and were well trained in wilderness survival.

Departing from Chitina, the friends enjoyed their Alaska adventure. As with all vacations, the days were winding down and the happy travelers were mindful of reaching their final desination, Cordova, in order to catch their flight back to San Diego.

When they hit Miles Lake on Sunday the summer escapade started to turn bleak, and the adventure became a race for rescue.

"We were trying to enter one of the channels but we kept bottoming out," explained Montoya surrounded by the reassuring comfort of Orca Adventure Lodge earlier this week.

"At that time we knew we would eventually make it, but we were on a schedule and the kids were cold," added the tall and strong Californian. So the two men called the Cordova Police Department for navigation help.

"They first gave us precise directions and we made a run at that," said Edward Ercoline. “But we were still bottoming out all the time,” added the two elder Montoya children Niki and Daniel, while their younger sister Isabella napped on the dining room table.

For nearly 14 hours they tried unsuccessfully to enter one of the river's channels. The current, pushing them in the right direction, was countered by a strong wind in the opposite direction, blowing the raft back into a standstill in Miles Lake.

At this point the situation didn’t seem too hazardous but the raft was now in the middle of the lake on a sand bar, which was becoming narrower by the hour. It had become clear the rafters weren’t making headway, and were not going to get to Cordova on time without help. That's when Cordova resident Luke Borer and his 28-foot-long hovercraft were called.

Borer got up the Copper and on site at about 1:30 p.m., 90 minutes after leaving Cordova. He got the travelers situated on board the 60,000 pound hovercraft and secured the raft with a tow line.

As they began to make way towards Cordova, they ran into Steve Ranney, owner of Orca Adventure Lodge, who offered assistance. At the Million Dollar Bridge, Ranney loaded the family’s heavy gear onto his boat.

A few pounds lighter, the hovercraft party with raft in tow kept heading down river. As they floated below Child’s Glacier, things got serious. The prop sheared off the shaft, leaving the hovercraft afloat but drifting in the Copper’s raging current without power. The men broke out paddles, working furiously to steer the craft as the current pulled them on a collision course with the Mile 36 Bridge.

Approaching the bridge, it was clear that with such high water, the boat would be lucky to pass beneath the bridge. They worked the big rafting oars and kept paddling, but according to Borer, it was "nearly impossible" considering the size and weight of the hovercraft.

In a stroke of exceptional and ultimately luck, Borer managed for a few seconds to get cell phone service, briefly reaching one of his friends back in town, Jack Stevenson.

"He had very little time," Stevenson told The Cordova Times. "He just said: 'We broke down and we're drifting towards the bridge'."

Stevenson understood how critical the situation was. He hurried to help his friend, but as he headed toward the bridge, he had the presence of mind to alert the U.S. Coast Guard air station. The Coast Guard immediately launched a search-and-rescue helicopter team.

Back on the hovercraft, the situation wasn't getting any better. "Throwing an anchor in the river,” Boyer said, “it's just an easy way to get in trouble. But at that time, we had to make a choice."

Niki Montoya, who says all three brothers and sisters had managed to cheer up and stay calm, started to worry: ”We were scared, and it was raining."

The first anchor attempt was nearly a disaster, remembers her father. "The anchor wrapped around his leg, and he fell on the deck," Montoya said. The men tried a few other times to set the anchor in a log or a rock to stop the boat from drifting towards the bridge.

"They knew at that point it was a life-threatening situation," Borer said. After their third failed attempt with the anchor, the two former paratroopers decided to take a gamble and attempt to jump on shore. "When you have kids, what are you gonna do? You just jump," Montoya said.

Once on the rocks there was still no place to secure a line. As the river raged, Montoya was using every ounce of energy the big paratrooper had, working to pull the boat towards shore. As he struggled, his three children watched from the deck on the hovercraft as the line in his hands snapped.

"I love you dad," yelled the Montoya kids as the boat was drifting away from the shore into the current. Montoya stood there, watching, knowing there was nothing more he could do. "At that point, I was scared,” Daniel Montoya said.

Approaching the now infamous Mile 36 Bridge, the children huddle onboard the craft, holding hands and, for a moment, praying.

Niki, assuming her role of elder sister, ordered her siblings to stop crying and get their act together. Both Niki and Daniel remained poised given the situation and their age. They grabbed the well-stocked survival kits around them, assembling signaling devices, waterproof matches and even a few peaches and peas in a can.

"We made it through the bridge, which shouldn't have happened," Niki said. "It was about 2 inches above our head and a piece snapped off the top of the boat!" added her younger brother Daniel.

As a matter of luck or perhaps divine intervention, the boat was stopped by a sand bar shortly after passing under the bridge, preventing it from going any farther downriver into the night. Young Daniel fired one of the signaling devices. Moments later, out of the fog and wind, the Coast Guard helicopter appeared.

One by one, with help from the search-and-rescue team, starting with the young Isabella, the children made their way to the helicopter which brought them back to the 36-Mile Bridge. Dad was waiting, along with a growing party of Alaska State Troopers and U.S. Forest Service officials, as well as Borer’s brother Jason and friend Mark King.

Everyone was glad the story had a happy ending, but as Daniel Montoya said upon reflection: "Anything can go wrong at any time on the Copper River."

Alaska State Trooper Mark Cloward could not agree more.

"Yesterday we came very, very close to having fatalities," explained the sergeant, who said the troopers did not learn of the incident until 9 p.m. Sunday, about 30 minutes before the boat was rescued by the Coast Guard.

"In case of a problem, or even a concern, it is essential to contact us," Cloward said. "This is our primary mission. We are trained and have the assets and resources but we need to know what's happening so we can help people out there."

This article was originally published by The Cordova Times and is reprinted here with permission.