Investigators are on the scene of a fire in Western Alaska that killed two people in their jail cells.

The fire burned early Sunday morning in the village of Napakiak. Troopers named the deceased on Monday as 24-year-old Becca White and 22-year-old Isaiah Parka.

Becca White, 24, died in a fire at the Napakiak jail in April 2019. Photo courtesy Miranda White.

 

Isaiah Parka, 22, died in a fire at the Napakiak jail in April 2019. Photo courtesy Megan Black.

The state fire marshal said they died in separate cells. A guard reported trying to get White and Parka out of their cells, but was unsuccessful and seriously injured in his attempts to free them.

John Thain / KTVA

Fire investigators from Anchorage, Mat-Su, Fairbanks and Bethel troopers were in the village late Monday afternoon. State Fire Marshal Richard Boothby said they're looking into whether evidence supports a report that the fire started in a mattress.

"It was reported that it was started [as] a mattress fire so that's what we are going into this as," said Boothby.

According to Boothby, the village jail had three cells. White and Parka were in cells one and two, the third was empty. Boothby said the building, which also houses tribal offices, was badly damaged but could have been worse.

John Thain / KTVA

The community has no fire department so villagers used a pump to put out the blaze with water from the river.

"We actually had quite a bit more of a scene left than we were thinking we were going to have," Boothby said. "Typically when you don't have a fire department you end up with the buildings pretty much to the ground."

Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Megan Peters said they were waiting to hear more from tribal administrators before releasing information about why White and Parka were in jail.

'The whole community is mourning'

White's family describes her and Parka as kind, funny people who were always happy and making others laugh.

“They were best friends,” said White’s cousin, Scott Nelson. “They were young. And they were always seen together in the community. They were good people. The whole community is mourning for the loss of them.”

Another of White’s cousins, Jonathon Nelson, says he was getting ready for bed when he heard someone screaming for help.

“By the time I got to the doors I saw smoke, and then I saw flames,” Jonathon said.

He says one of the guards looked badly burned.

“He was shaking and screaming,” Jonathon recalled. “He couldn’t do anything, say anything. He was screaming. Burnt hands, face was black. The other guard said there is people inside. As soon as he said that, I went to go find doors, try and kick them down.”

'We can and should do better'  

Before the Alaska House of Representatives adjourned on Monday, Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel, spoke of heroism and lessons to be learned.

“As is common throughout rural and small communities, the entire village came together in a collective effort to extinguish the fire,” she told her colleagues.

“As our body considers the public safety needs of our state, this tragedy highlights the need for improved coordination, resources and facilities in far flung areas of the state,” she continued. “To protect all Alaskans, we can and should do better.”

John Thain / KTVA

Later in an interview, she spoke of guard Clarence Rickteroff’s efforts to save White and Parka.

“He sustained injuries that in his attempts to be heroic and in his attempts to make sure that every life was spared,” she said. “Unfortunately, they didn’t make it. It is so incredible anytime somebody runs into the face of danger and there are Alaskans across the state who are willing to do that and we should all be so thankful.”

According to a spokesperson for Harborview Medical Center, Rickteroff is being treated at the hospital's burn unit. He is listed in serious condition in the Intensive Care Unit.

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