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‘We have a resilient crew’: Unalaska’s interim fire chief praises first responders for last week’s search efforts

Unalaskans wrote thank you notes to local first responders at a community support gathering hosted by Unalaskans Against Sexual Assault and Family Violence on Saturday, March 25.
Laura Kraegel
Unalaskans wrote thank you notes to local first responders at a community support gathering hosted by Unalaskans Against Sexual Assault and Family Violence on Saturday, March 25.

Unalaska’s Fire Department held a staff debriefing last week after leading extensive search efforts for 34-year-old Charlene Malepeai Mamea.

Malepeai Mamea’s remains were found Tuesday, March 21, in Unalaska Lake. The State Medical Examiner’s Office, in Anchorage, is now working to determine the cause of her death.

Interim Fire Chief Ben Knowles spoke with KUCB’s Laura Kraegel about how Unalaska’s career and volunteer firefighters are doing, following the challenging response.


BEN KNOWLES: The general consensus I got is that, you know, everyone’s doing good. We have a resilient crew. And we’re a very close-knit, tight family type, as much of a cliché as that is. We lean on each other a lot. We had a lot of really good conversations yesterday [Thursday, March 23], talking about the emotions that everyone’s going through. Knowing that we’re all going through the same things. And I think that’s important. That’s a really important piece of that critical incident stress debriefing — is understanding that your peers are going through that same emotional roller coaster, and that no one’s alone, and that everyone’s able to share their feelings and talk amongst each other and feel comfortable with that. I think there’s obviously some sad emotions. And we’re all pretty emotional. It’s not necessarily the positive outcome that we were looking for. But we were extremely grateful that we were able to be a part of bringing some closure to the family.

KUCB: I know that you’re very proud of your team, and very proud of their work on this response. But I know that there were significant challenges as well. So is there anything that we can learn? Any takeaways, in terms of us being prepared as a community?

KNOWLES: We all felt supported by the community during this effort. And I think that’s really important — that anytime one of these tragic incidents happens, this community comes together in a way that’s just nothing short of amazing. And so I’m really happy with that. As far as the fire department aspect goes, I think there’s always things, takeaways that we can improve upon. You know, one of the things that we talk about as a group during these critical incident stress briefings is: What could we have done better? Or are there things that we would change in the future? And realistically, with this incident, the general consensus among the group was that we did everything that we could do. We had people out there almost consistently for 36 hours. We went off the facts that we were given. We looked for the signs. We stick to the plan. We had a pretty solid plan. And unfortunately, with weather, visibility, timelines, odds were fighting against us. And even though — day one going into day two, everyone was frustrated. Everybody was frustrated. I mean, tempers were flaring. Everyone was, you know, ‘What’s going on? What are we missing? There’s something we’re missing. We’ve looked everywhere.’ Nobody gave up. Everyone kept looking. ‘Hey, I’ve already walked over this same rock five times.’ And that’s frustrating. That’s frustrating for anyone — not just fire department personnel, civilians. Looking for something, knowing that, okay, it has to be somewhere over here. And you’ve walked past this same landmark five times. But they just kept going. And they kept looking at that same rock five times. And then a sixth. And then a seventh. And so in this instance, I can’t ask for anything more than what was done. I think everybody gave it an all-out effort, and I think the outcome was what the outcome was. And we were able to help bring peace to the family.

KUCB: This last week — these last few weeks, perhaps, have been difficult for a lot of folks. Is there anything more that you would want to say to the community right now?

KNOWLES: So first and foremost, obviously, thank you again. Thank you to the community for coming out and supporting us. Thank you for continually supporting us even after the event. I think it’s important that, again, we all know that we’re all going through the same thing emotionally. I will ask that if you see a firefighter, please don’t ask them questions. Give them some time to heal. Give them some time to absorb what’s happening with them. One of the worst things that you can do is ask a responder that’s been to one of these tragic incidents the details about things. ‘What did you see? What did she look like?’ So just please be mindful of that. And I think most people are. It’s just we want to reiterate that. We want to make sure that we’re taking care of our folks here and their mental health. And if the community ever needs anything, day or night -- you know, if you’re feeling anything, you need to reach out, you need to talk to someone, you have these emotions, you don’t understand, whatever it may be. You can call us day or night. It’s not a burden of any sort. There’s resources out there, and we’re willing to listen. We’re willing to help talk you through whatever you need. Just to listen, just to hear you out. So you’re not alone. We appreciate everybody’s support and concern. And we’ll get through this.

Laura Kraegel reported for KUCB from 2016 until 2020. She was KUCB's news director starting in 2019. We are proud to have her back in the spring of 2023 filling in as an interim reporter for KUCB.
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