Recollections of 9/11 from 2001 stay in Alaska
Excerpted from a memoir of Father Dick Gross
Father Dick Gross of Watkins retired June 20, 2001, from active ministry after serving in the Diocese of New Ulm for 39 years. He then spent three months in Alaska, serving the Church of St. John Neumann in Coopers Landing during July and August, and the Church of St. Patrick in Barrow for the first three weekends of September.
On June 25, 2001, Father Dick and his brother-in-law Ted Krebs-bach of Cold Spring took off for Alaska. His friends speculated that his ’91 Cadillac with 172,000 miles on it already may not even make it out of town. Four days and 3,200 miles later, the pair arrived in Anchorage. His final destination was Coopers Landing, about 100 miles south of Anchorage. After two months saying Mass there, plus 10 days of fishing with Krebsbach, Father Dick volunteered to fill in at the parish in Barrow for three weeks in September.
I drove from Anchorage to Fairbanks Aug. 29, a distance of 360 miles, arriving at about 9 p.m. I stayed with Ron Bates, a neighbor from Watkins as I was growing up, and he showed me around town. On Friday, I left by plane for Barrow, an Eskimo village 350 miles north of the Arctic Circle and about 450 miles from Fairbanks. The only way to travel to Barrow is by airplane (or dog sled in winter). We were the last plane in and out of Barrow for five days. The Instrumental Landing System malfunctioned, and they were unable to get a repair person to fix it because of the fog.
We landed safely and were told the temperature was 28 degrees. It was sleeting as we walked across the parapet to the airport waiting room. Noli, a member of the parish, was waiting for me in the terminal and took me to the rectory. The church/rectory was built in 1994 and seats about 150 people. The front of the church has an apartment upstairs, over the entrance and gathering space, kitchen, and bathrooms. The rectory is very modern, about 1,200 square feet consisting of a large kitchen/dining room area, living room, two bedrooms, and a bath. The walls are 12” thick with arctic windows. The whole complex is heated with a gas boiler, and it remained at 70+ degrees just from the recycling of the boiler, keeping the water at 180 to 200 degrees, even though the temperature outside was from 28 to 35 degrees the first week of my stay.
Barrow is the center for business, communications, government, and transportation for the entire North Slope of Alaska. A population of 4,500 people, principally Inupiat Eskimo, makes up this northernmost incorporated city on the North American continent. It is the seat of government for the North Slope Borough which covers more than 88,000 square miles. The Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, an Inupiat shareholder-owned business, is one of the state’s largest private landowners with more than 5 million acres. It was created under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971. State and federal funding also support Barrow’s economy.
Barrow is a modern city with contemporary schools, year-round community recreational facilities, two fire stations, a modern police force, free sanitation services, a 14-bed hospital and comprehensive health care, sophisticated telecommunications and Internet access, 50 channels of cable TV, KBRW public radio, seven churches, many local citizens’ organizations, three major search-and-rescue groups, excellent bus service, and several local taxi companies. Four hotels provide housing for visitors, while eight restaurants provide a variety of food service. On Sunday, Sept. 9, the sun came out for the first time since the beginning of July, and we experienced unseasonably warm weather; the temperature hit 55 degrees on Monday, a record for the date. The average temperature during summer months is 40 degrees.
The weekend of Sept. 1-2, a total of about 140 people attended Mass (40 on Saturday evening, and 100 on Sunday morning). The parish is made up of 300-500 people, although no accurate census is available. The most active element is a contingent of Filipinos, some of whom have been there for more than 20 years. They lead the Rosary before every Mass and Leta, a Filipino woman in her early 60s, leads the people in the Litany of the Saints, all by memory including the closing prayers and hymn. On Wednesday evenings, they have the Novena to Our Mother Perpetual Help, with mostly Filipinos in attendance. There also is an active Caucasian community; most are teachers, employees of the Borough or Native Corporation, or in other professional areas of employment.
After Mass, Ron Lloyd, a teacher in the local elementary school, offered me the use of his four-wheeler. What a gift! This mode of transportation allowed me to visit the many historic sites in and around the town which is spread out over four miles of coastline, separated by two fresh-water sloughs into Barrow, the main business community, and Browerville, the residential area. The first week of my stay at Barrow was spent mostly in the Rectory because of the inclement weather.
After the 10 a.m. Mass on Sunday, Sept. 9, I ate lunch with the community at the brunch that is served each Sunday morning. I then set off on the four-wheeler along the eastern coast, following some tracks I saw along the beach. My destination was Hollywood Village, five miles out, so called because Walt Disney made a movie there some years ago entitled, “Track of the Giant Snow Bear.” The village is made up of seven buildings, built in the traditional Eskimo fashion with a wood frame surrounded by sod. … After the adventure, I was glad to be back in the safety of the rectory.
Tuesday, Sept. 11: This is a day that everyone will remember. My brother Ron called me at about 5:55 a.m. (8:55 ET) and told me to turn on the TV for some breaking news. The rectory has satellite cable TV with 60 stations which come in as clear as back in Minnesota. Not having Mass in the morning, I proceeded to watch the news broadcasts all day and saw not only the damage done to the first tower hit, but the direct hit the second took, the collapse of both towers, and the tragic aftermath. It is frightening to think how precarious our safety is, and even more frightening because such disasters are brought right into our living rooms via TV, which adds to the trauma we all experience. Brother Ron called later int he afternoon and stated that I was probably in one of the safest places in the U.S. I found out that evening that the mayor of the borough, his wife, and four assistants and spouses were supposed to be in the building right next to the World Trade Center at 9 that morning; one of the women was late in getting ready which delayed their arrival. The FAA also contacted the airport and was thinking of diverting some of the international flights to Barrow because of the crowded conditions at the Anchorage and Fairbanks airports, but decided against it because of the short length of the runway. We planned a memorial Mass on Friday night for all those who died on Sept. 11, and for their families. The native community was having a pot latch (pot luck) Friday evening, a yearly event before the beginning of the whaling season.
I spent from Aug. 31 to Sept. 16 at Barrow, saying the daily and Sunday Masses. When I arrived back at Fairbanks, I volunteered to come back to Barrow over the Christmas Holy Days. The Diocesan Administrator, Father Dick Case, was overwhelmed because they had no one to send there then. I returned from Dec. 21 though Jan. 2. The weather at that time of year is usually below zero, getting as cold as -40 degrees. The sun goes down Nov. 18 and doesn’t rise above the horizon until 62 days later. During the summer, the sun stays above the horizon from May 10 until July 8, a total of 82 days.