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With Bodies Recovered, Unalaska Police Focus On Investigating Car Accident That Killed 2 Students

Berett Wilber/KUCB

Note: APIA's behavioral health staff is in Unalaska to support grieving students, families, and community members. This weekend, you can reach providers by calling 359-2743. They're available over the phone, or they'll provide information on how you can make a face-to-face appointment. You can also find more information here

Emergency responders have recovered the bodies of two Unalaska high school students who died in a car accident Thursday afternoon.

Now, police are shifting their attention to the ongoing investigation into why the pickup truck tumbled 900 feet down a ravine on Mount Ballyhoo and broke into pieces.

Interim Police Chief John Lucking said his department is waiting on toxicology test results to determine whether the driver, Dustin Ruckman, 18, was under the influence of alcohol or drugs when he lost control of the vehicle.

Ruckman, who is also a local high school student, survived the accident that killed passengers Karly McDonald, 16, and Kiara Renteria Haist, 18.

"We have samples from the driver that are being analyzed right now, so we're anxious to see what the results are," said Lucking on Saturday morning. "We'll just be putting the pieces together to try and develop the full picture of what exactly did happen.

"Not to bring any kind of blame," he said. "It's just a matter of: Our job is finding the facts as they truly happened."

Police will also rely on autopsy results from the state medical examiner's office. Lucking said McDonald's and Renteria Haist's bodies were being sent to the examiner's Anchorage office on Saturday for review.

"[The medical examiners] want to determine an exact cause of death and document the particular signs of trauma, so that if they have a story to tell, in relation to the investigation about what happened, then those facts can be collected," he said.

Before the girls' bodies were sent to Anchorage, Lucking said there was "a visitation at the clinic so the parents got to confront the whole situation, sadly." He also said the families will coordinate with funeral home services after the autopsies are complete.

It's unclear when autopsy and toxicology test results will be returned to local police.

Emergency responders spent some 30 hours staging search and recovery operations on the Ulakta Head side of Ballyhoo, where the truck went into a ravine and fell to the shoreline below on Thursday around 1:30 p.m.

Due to the vehicle's "widespread wreckage" and the mountain's "rough and extremely steep terrain," police said Renteria Haist's body wasn't recovered until Friday around 2 p.m., with the recovery of McDonald's body following Friday around 6 p.m.

Lucking said about 30 responders helped, including local police officers, firefighters, and emergency medical service providers, as well as two members of Kodiak Island Search and Rescue who were flown to the island on a C-130 aircraft by the U.S. Coast Guard.

"Everyone is off the mountain. Everyone is safe," he said of the responders. "Some bumps and bruises, and a couple of pulled muscles. But I think everybody will be better for having a little time away from that mountain."

While the Kodiak rescue unit was scheduled to leave Saturday afternoon, local responders planned to sit down with counselors Saturday evening.

"Stress-wise, obviously, it was traumatic," said Lucking. "You kind of get in a mode while [the emergency response] is happening, and it's afterwards that things start setting in.

"So we're setting up a debriefing tonight to deal with some stress just amongst ourselves," he continued. "We'll be supporting each other with the help of mental health [providers] to get some of the tension out, if people need it. Just like the community. Everyone has to deal with things in their own way."

Lucking also said local responders will take time to review their operations.

"By and large, it was an incredible response — and even as efficient as it could be for the conditions we faced," he said. "But there's always room for improvement. There are big things that we [already] recognize, and there will be little things that we'll see when we look."

Lucking said he's already identified response time and training as two areas that need work, especially after a helicopter sent to help was grounded in Cold Bay and a Kodiak rescue unit was needed for their mountaineering skills.

"We learned that for the Coast Guard to respond with a helicopter, if there's not a vessel in the immediate area, six hours was the minimum that we were able to get some help — and that's just not acceptable," he said. "So often, we're going to have to serve ourselves, so that means training people and maybe getting some equipment here that we haven't had in the past."

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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