ANCHORAGE, Alaska (TBEN) — Summer Myomick bundled up her baby against the frigid wind whipping off the Bering Sea and stepped outside in a haze of blowing snow. It was a short walk from the school where she had been visiting relatives to the health clinic about 137 meters away, but the young mother could barely see where she was going – or the terror approaching.
Myomick, 24, and her son, 1-year-old Clyde Ongtowasruk, were just passing the front of Kingikmiut School in Wales, Alaska, just below the Arctic Circle, when a polar bear emerged from the impenetrable blizzard and tore them apart Tuesday. It was the first deadly polar bear attack in 30 years in Alaska, the only US state where the animals live.
As the attack unfolded, the warden ordered a lockdown and closed the blinds so the children couldn’t see what was happening outside the entrance. Several employees and community members left the safe building and attempted to drive the bear away with kicks.
The tearing stopped momentarily, but not until the animal turned on them and they quickly ran back inside. Principal Dawn Hendrickson slammed the door in the face of the attacking bear, potentially saving lives, according to Susan Nedza, chief clerk for the Bering Strait School District.
“The polar bear was chasing them and trying to get in as well,” said Nedza, who received frantic calls about the attack in Unalakleet, about 250 miles away. “Just horrific. … Something you never think you’ll ever experience.”
There is no law enforcement in Wales, so while the bear was still outside, an appeal was made to community members for help. An unidentified person showed up with a gun and killed the bear as it continued to maul Myomick and her son.
It appears the mother and toddler had no idea what was to come because of the poor eyesight, Alaska State Troopers spokesman Austin McDaniel told The The Bharat Express News Thursday.
The immediate family temporarily lived at the school while they fixed electrical problems in their home, according to a post on a GoFundMe fundraising site created to help the family “in the face of unfathomable tragedy and heartbreak.”
“We ask that you respect their privacy during this time of immense grief,” the message read.
Wales, a whaling community, is the westernmost point of the North American mainland – just 50 miles from Russia across the Bering Strait – and is home to about 150 people, almost all of them Iñupiat. It is accessible by plane and by boat, including ships that deliver household goods. Winter trails provide snowmobile access to other communities and subsistence hunting grounds.
Kingikmiut School, like other schools in many rural Alaskan Indigenous communities, also serves as a community center. The view from the front, where the attack took place, is an endless expanse of frozen snow and ice stretching to the horizon.
Nedza, the school district’s chief clerk, said she received a call from a distraught Hendrickson just after 2 p.m. Tuesday. She said the students were locked up and safe.
The blizzard that camouflaged the bear, along with a lack of runway lighting on the Wales gravel sky strip, prevented Alaska State Troopers from flying in an officer and a Nome State wildlife officer until Wednesday to investigate.
It is not known what prompted the attack. However, polar bears view humans as prey, said Geoff York, senior director of conservation at Polar Bear International.
Samples were taken from the bear for the state vet and the bodies of Myomick and her son were flown to Nome, eventually being transported to the State Medical Examiner’s Office in Anchorage.
School was canceled on Wednesday so students could be with their families, and the school district flew counselors to Wales. The school had scheduled soft openings Thursday and Friday with no classes, but with the opportunity for students to meet with counselors, get a meal or play a game, Nedza said.
Alaska scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey in 2019 found that changes in sea ice habitat coincided with evidence that polar bear land use was increasing and the likelihood of a polar bear encounter had increased.
Polar bears are the largest bear species, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Males typically weigh 600 to 1,200 pounds (270 to 540 kilograms), but can grow over 1,700 pounds (770 kilograms) and as long as 10 feet (3 meters). Females weigh 400 to 700 pounds (180 to 320 kilograms). Polar bears generally feed on seals, as well as walruses and beluga whales.
They were listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 2008 and are also protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Both laws prohibit harming the animals without permission, unless it is necessary for human safety.
The Bharat Express News writer Gene Johnson in Seattle contributed to this report.