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Thursday, March 25, 1999 Published at 16:21 GMT

Exxon Valdez anniversary

Exxon Valdez

By Tom Carver

I've never had a steam bath with Eskimos before. Four of us are squeezed into a flimsy plywood hut which looks like a potting shed.

Outside the temperature is fifteen degrees below freezing -- snow is piled right up to the roof. A cold moon hangs above a vast flank of snow-covered mountain. Somewhere up there in the trees, Alaskan bears are hibernating in their winter dens.

Inside the hut it seems hotter than hell, thanks to a giant, blackened wood stove in the corner. Facing it a few inches away on a rather knobbly bench sit Rob, my cameraman, myself, Larry and Doug.

I don't normally get to see my interviewees in the nude, but this was their idea, not mine.

Larry certainly looks like an Eskimo: he's big and round, with smooth skin. He has an Asiatic-looking face and a quiet, gentle manner. Doug, on the other hand, I discover, comes from Oregon.

Years ago there were dozens of villages like Chenega, dotted along the inlets of Prince William Sound, living off the rich harvest of salmon, seals and halibut and the deer in the woods. But these days, Chenega is one of the few that still leads this kind of subsistence life.

Doug's wife, though a native Alaskan, it turns out has had enough of the Eskimo life and prefers to shop for her food in the supermarkets of Anchorage.

It's getting so hot in the hut that I'm beginning to think about throwing myself in the freezing waters of the Sound when Larry stands up and says he's had enough.

Chenega's earthquake

We bolt for the door to the changing-room, an even smaller hut next door, and there we sit, side by side, the steam rising from our bodies. Within seconds I start feeling the cold, but Larry is talking about the time that Chenega was wiped out by an earthquake.

It happened on Good Friday, 1964. When the coast guard plane flew over the village an hour later, it couldn't even find where the village had once stood. It had disappeared from the map.

In fact, it wasn't the earthquake which destroyed Chenega but the tsunami -- the tidal wave which had been caused by the movement of the earth.

It came roaring down Prince William Sound and swept away Larry's parents, uncles and aunts and thirty other villagers. Larry was away in Anchorage at school at the time.

It's clear from the halting way he talks about it that he has never quite forgiven himself for not being there and dying too.

The village was moved to a new site a few miles down the Sound -- a place which had good fishing and in the lee of another island to protect them from future tsunamis.

Disaster strikes again

They built their own church -- all the native people on this coast are Russian Orthodox, curiously, a hangover from the last century when Russia owned Alaska.

[ image: 11 million gallons spilt into the Sound]
11 million gallons spilt into the Sound
Twenty-five years later, in 1989, disaster struck again, and once again it was Good Friday. But this time it wasn't an earthquake but the Exxon Valdez.

Instead of two minutes of terror, death crept around the headland on the morning tide. The site that they had chosen so carefully was defenceless against this new, insidious threat.

The previous night, the Exxon Valdez tanker had finished loading with fifty-three-million gallons of oil at Valdez, the terminal at the end of the eight-hundred mile trans-Alaska oil pipeline.

Whilst the tanker was being filled, its captain, Joe Hazelwood, whiled away his time in the tiny port. In March, in Valdez, the attractions are pretty limited. He placed some calls to friends back home, wired some flowers to his daughter and had lunch. By mid-afternoon, he had finished his chores and he went to the pub.

[ image: Captain Hazelwood]
Captain Hazelwood
By his own admittance he had four vodkas -- although he claims he didn't drink one of them. At his trial, however, it transpired that Hazelwood had once been admitted to hospital for alcoholism and was known to have a drinking problem, and yet Exxon allowed him to remain in charge of a thousand-foot oil tanker.

Three minutes after midnight that night, the Exxon Valdez grounded on Bligh Reef as it was heading out of port. Within hours, eleven-million gallons of north-slope crude oil had spilled out of the gaping hole in its side into the Sound.

It took several hours for the black tide to reach Chenega. In the end, a thousand miles of coastline was oiled, killing a quarter-of-a-million sea birds, two-dozen whales and five-thousand sea otters.

The Chenegans call it the day the sea died. For four years they didn't go near their fishing-boats. The birdsong went away; the bears became so hungry they came down the mountain and raided the village for food to supplement the salmon that had been poisoned.

Thousands of strangers with vast industrial cleaning machinery took over the village's beaches, squirting chemicals between the rocks.

Once again, Larry was away from the village when it happened. He immediately gave up a lucrative job on the mainland, came home and here he has stayed ever since, with Gail, his wife, and their children.

When his youngest son, Jay, heard that the BBC was staying in the village, he came to see us. It turned out that he had just discovered the Spice Girls -- he was clearly smitten. I told him every Spice Girl's story I knew.

The lost generation

He is one of eight children at the village school, and next year the school will probably have to be closed.

Since the Exxon Valdez disaster, half of the families have moved away, looking for a more secure life on the mainland. During the four years in which they lost their subsistence way of life, they were unable to teach their young how to catch fish and shoot the seal they need for food.

"We lost a whole generation," says Larry with deep sadness.

But there are signs of hope. Realizing its peril, the village is now making a big effort to keep the old ways alive. They still manage to live a largely subsistence way of life. In winter the ferry only calls once a month.

[ image: Locals rely on wildlife for food]
Locals rely on wildlife for food
Whenever someone goes out fishing or shoots a seal or a deer, the food is always shared amongst the villagers, Larry says. After two disasters, they are now rebuilding their sense of community. The environment, too, is well on the way to recovery.

When we went out with Larry in his fishing boat, we saw three sea otters, one with a cub, only yards from the shore. The sea eagles are nesting again in the trees. Even the whales have come back.

And now that the oil men have finally gone, the incredible silence has returned, too. This is one reason why those who stay in Chenega never want to leave.

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