After almost four months of waiting in emotional and legal limbo, the family of a man who disappeared in a boating accident on the Tanana River this past fall can finally gain closure after a jury ruled that their loved one is no longer thought missing, but is in fact, dead.
Last week on Feb. 4, after almost two hours of testimony from state investigators, first responders, friends and family members, a six-member jury found that Fairbanks resident William Arnold, 74, could not have survived an Oct. 20 boating accident.
The chances of Arnold surviving in the rapidly moving frigid waters of the Tanana were slim. The 584-mile river flows northwest through the Interior and is known for its beauty but also for the way conditions can change on the river without notice. Even if Arnold was a strong enough swimmer at his age and health to survive long enough to get out of the water, the odds of him surviving four months of winter exposure and starvation in the wild was zero.
Jared Arnold, William’s son, said he and his family were grateful for the ruling and that court issues dealing with the death are over.
“We are deeply relieved that we have gone though that part of the process,” he said.
Arnold was out on the river with a friend and pastor, Dave Castor, a long-time Alaska resident with more than 30 years of experience boating on the Tanana. Castor was making a wide turn across the river when a sideways gust of wind blew the airboat into a partially submerged tree. The tree lifted up the front of the boat and water came rushing into the back. Castor jumped to the front of the boat to grab a line, but the boat hit an underwater obstruction and threw him clear of the craft, Castor testified over a conferencing system to the court chambers.
The water pushed and dragged Castor for close to 20 minutes until he shoved his foot between two rocks and held his body sideways against the current. He looked around and everything was gone.
“I was able to stand up and hold my head and shoulders above the water line,” he said. “I looked around and I couldn’t even see the boat at that point. I couldn’t see the boat, I couldn’t see any debris floating down the river.”
To the court, Castor tearfully described pulling himself up a riverbank and being able to contact first responders on an iPhone. As they flew him away, he made sure his rescuers knew Arnold was still on the river, he said in court.
“I barely survived,” he testified. “There is no way anybody could have survived that if they were in the water longer than I was.”
The Arnold family has believed for sometime that Arnold, a deeply respected Air Force veteran, longtime civil servant and experienced outdoorsman, likely drowned on the Tanana months ago. The court decision last week, along with a paper death certificate, allows the family to finally give up the last small bits of hope they were clinging to against their will, that Arnold would somehow, knock on their door — alive.
“It reinforced for my mom that he was definitely gone,” Arnold said.
The decision also removed Helen Arnold, William’s wife, from a legal and financial no man’s land she found herself in since her husband disappeared. William had done his best to make sure Helen was taken care of in the event of his death. But there was one major problem; no body meant no death certificate. No death certificate meant no release could be given on most of the preparations William Arnold had made. The only way a death certificate could be granted was if a jury ruled William Arnold had, in fact, died. With the COVID-19 epidemic shuttering most court procedures, it seemed like the family would wait forever.
A series of Alaska court rulings opening up courts again along with some local pressure on behalf of the Arnolds led to their case being heard.
Jared said that oddly enough the way his father died gave him some feeling of consolation.
“He was an Alaskan through and through and he passed on doing something he always wanted to do in the Alaska wilderness.”
Contact Will Morris at 459-7582.