Top stories of 2022 | Part one

by Colleen Smith, Heather Spaulding, Kelley Balcomb-Bartok and Kathryn Wheeler

Staff report

At the end of the year, we take a look at the biggest headlines of the past 12 months. Watch for part two in next week’s edition. We chose the top stories from our most-read online articles and events we feel impacted our communities.

1. Prune Alley project in Eastsound completed

It was with great joy that county staff and islanders celebrated the completion on Sept. 1 of the Prune Alley construction project which included pedestrian and accessibility improvements, transportation infrastructure, storm drain infrastructure, water quality improvements, landscaping, lighting, and other streetscape amenities.

The long-awaited upgrades that began in March of 2022 resulted in road closures, traffic re-direction and limited parking options for those who were shopping, eating and socializing in town. Many townspeople and businesses lamented the disruption the construction has created, causing strange traffic patterns, making parking a challenge and generally frustrating visitors who have to bob and weave through construction. Businesses reported significant decreases in revenue streams.

In May, Sheriff Ron Krebs asked the public to “respect” the county’s construction project after receiving reports of unruly citizens ignoring safety precautions.

“People have been driving down the roads illegally, crossing barriers and parking in the construction site and someone threw a water bottle at one of the workers and hit him in the hard hat,” he said.

2. Sea plane crashes, no survivors

On Sept. 26, the U.S. Navy recovered the wreckage of the DHC-3 Turbine Otter seaplane that crashed on Sept. 4 off Whidbey Island, killing all nine passengers and the pilot. The accident occurred during the pilot’s second trip of the day.

A review of Federal Aviation Administration tracking data revealed that the flight departed from Friday Harbor Seaplane Base at around 2:50 p.m. with a destination of Renton Municipal Airport in Renton, Washington.

Witnesses near the accident site reported that the airplane was in level flight before it entered a slight climb, then pitched down in a near-vertical descent. The airplane continued in a nose dive until it hit the water in Mutiny Bay. Several witnesses described the airplane as “spinning,” “rotating,” or “spiraling” during portions of the steep descent.

Recent reports by the National Transportation Safety Board, which has been investigating the crash since it occurred, stated that “it appeared [that] a critical part that moved the plane’s horizontal tail stabilizer came apart,” as reported by The Seattle Times. This may have been because a clamp nut had unthreaded, or the lock ring was improperly installed. The failure of the tail stabilizer could have allowed a loss of control over the airplane.

The crash came during peak tourism season when seaplanes see a large deal of activity and many rely on them to safely reach the islands. The crash was unsettling to many, who were shocked by the tragedy and questioned their own use of the plane service going forward. Among the victims were a civil rights activist, a business owner, a lawyer, an engineer and the founder of a winery and his family.

3. County Council limits vacation rentals

​​After listening to over three hours of public testimony on May 17, the San Juan County Council unanimously voted on island-specific caps for vacation rentals. Orcas is capped at 211, San Juan at 337, Lopez at 135 and the outer islands at 10. The new limits took effect ten days after the ordinance was adopted.

“I heard San Juan Island loud and clear, and I heard Orcas loud and clear,” council member Cindy Wolf said to her colleagues as they deliberated. Commenters from Orcas Island heavily supported a cap, citing safety issues, water concerns and impacts on affordable housing. San Juan Island commenters cited economic reasons to keep vacation rentals as a viable source of income, many stating they did not see the evidence that short-term rentals have a significant impact, particularly on affordable housing.

The high number of VRs coupled with the fact they are concentrated in Orcas Island’s densest residential neighborhoods led Orcas Islanders to petition the council to put limits on them, Wolf said.

“It isn’t all a money grab,” council member Jamie Stephens, Lopez Island said. “People do this for a variety of reasons,” Stephens explained that he wanted space to increase the number, and 135 provided that space. Stephens also said he felt it was important the ordinance be reviewed in five years. San Juan County Community Development director Dave Williams pointed out that the council could revisit the issue at any time, and Wolf objected to mandating what future council must deal with.

4. Glenwood Inn property purchased

With natural bluffs, forest land and one-third of a mile of shoreline, the 58-acre Glenwood Inn property was bought with great celebration by the San Juan County Land Bank and San Juan Preservation this past July. The two groups came together to purchase the $6.3 million property, with the help of funding from a grant and a pending application for a conservation easement from the County, which will be decided in 2023.

This conservation easement became the center of controversy between the joint purchasing parties and the San Juan County Council, when a County resolution signed on June 14 agreed to retain the rights to two development areas on the property, which directly contradicted the grant proposal that would eliminate ten of the 11 development rights that come with the parcel. This miscommunication led to many questions about the fate of the property and the motivations of Lincoln Bormann, the Executive Director of the Land Bank, who has been accused of rushing various real estate transactions in the past.

On Aug. 2, the council met with Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Amy Vira to sign a resolution to amend the June 14 resolution that had contradicted the grant proposal. In this resolution, the County provided full support for extinguishing the proposal to build on the land, and the Land Bank and SJPT were rewarded with their original request.

“The good news is that people of San Juan County have become owners of this spectacular parcel — now and forever,” Land Bank commissioner Sandi Friel told the commission at its July 15 regular meeting.

5. Devastating fire in Friday Harbor

Friday Harbor lost three historical buildings in the downtown core on April 7, and several businesses were destroyed or damaged.

The incident was phoned in at 3:43 a.m. that morning by a passing tow truck driver. By 8 a.m., flames appeared to die down in the upper stories of the buildings, only to reemerge. The fire was serious enough that some Orcas Fire, Lopez and Skagit personnel were requested to assist. Washington State Ferry Service also dispatched a ferry for the transport of emergency personnel and apparatus. Early estimates by Fire officials were approximately 10 million dollars in losses. Fortunately, nobody was injured and no lives were lost. Islanders jumped into action helping emergency responders as they battled the fire, many wept at the sight of such integral businesses and structures being engulfed in flame. As the fire abated and the smoke cleared, islanders reflected on the memories the buildings held, and jumped into action to raise funds for the businesses after their devastating losses.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was brought in to investigate the source of the fire. After only a matter of days, the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office and ATF announced that the cause of the fire was determined to be arson. A 33-year-old Friday Harbor man, Dwight C. Henline, was arrested on April 16 in Langley, Washington. He was transferred from Island County to San Juan County, where he appeared in Superior Court on April 20. That case was dismissed so that federal charges could be brought against him. The federal case is being heard in the United States District Court of Western Washington. Henline has pleaded not guilty. A trial was set to be held in November but was postponed to June 20, 2023.

6. Orcas resident dies in Ukraine

Skyler Gregg, 23, died in combat, fighting for Ukraine on Oct. 29.

Gregg grew up on Orcas, graduating with the 2018 high school class. He studied business administration at the University of Wroclaw in Poland, where many of his classmates were Ukrainian. Gregg began traveling regularly to Ukraine with friends and instantly felt at home.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, he immediately took action. Gregg joined the International Legion to fight alongside other volunteers from around the globe and flew out of the United States at the end of March.

At the end of May, a drone dropped explosives on Gregg and his comrades while they were eating dinner in an outdoor cooking area. Shrapnel ripped open his forearm and lodged in his leg. He was sent to a military hospital and then transferred to a facility farther from the front lines. He returned to the eastern side of Ukraine to reunite with his squad at the end of June.

“I am so grateful for the Orcas community who helped shape Skyler into the kind man he became,” said his mother Michele Gregg. “He absolutely loved growing up here and even as a child would voice his acknowledgment of how wonderful Orcas was. The community taught him kindness and love for humanity. When the need arose to give assistance to those in need, he didn’t have a second thought.”

7. Vikings’ soccer is second in state

The 2022 Orcas Vikings’ soccer season came to a close in November after making it to the state championships, where they finished second place. The Friday Harbor Wolverines came in first.

On Nov. 18, the boys won their semi-final game against St. George in the Renton Memorial Stadium, setting them up to play against the Orcas Vikings in the Renton stadium the next day.

The teams had met three times that season with the Wolverines winning once in overtime, the Vikings once in regulation, and the Wolverines winning the district championship in penalties. Both teams had fought all season for this moment, and with the kickoff, they would play for it all, the Wolverines pushed up early but the Viking defenders held tight and refused to concede.

The two talented teams played a tight game, but the Wolverines stayed in the lead, with the final score of 2-1.

Don’t expect this to be the last time you hear about the state tournament in soccer or the rest of the season. The Vikings will return six starters from this team with replacement players already prepared to take the field. Compared with Friday Harbor’s 14 seniors the Vikings will be in a primed position to return the state trophy to Eastsound, as Orcas did in 2021.

8. Sunken Aleutian Isle successfully recovered after 40 days

The Aleutian Isle, a 58-foot-long steel purse seine fishing vessel built in the 1970s, sank within minutes off the western shores of San Juan Island on a sunny Saturday in August. On the day of the sinking eyewitnesses described hearing screams as the vessel disappeared in a matter of minutes. Luckily all crew members aboard were rescued, and no lives were lost.

The boat initially came to rest along the western edge of an underwater shelf at just over 100’ depth, but by morning the vessel had slipped to a depth of over 200 feet, complicating matters considerably since dive operations at such a depth are exponentially more difficult and dangerous.

Immediately following the sinking a large diesel sheen appeared up the coast from the sunken vessel, a few short miles from a large gathering of endangered Southern Resident killer whales who had briefly entered the area unaware of the unfolding tragedy. Fortunately, the whales were reported returning to the open ocean riding an outgoing tide just as the diesel sheen’s tendrils draped down the coast of San Juan Island where the whales had been just hours before.

Two weeks after the initial sinking professional dive operations vessels and crews from Global Dive & Salvage arrived on scene. With large barges, cranes, and specialized rescue and recovery equipment, crews anchored directly above the fishing vessel resting precariously on her starboard side overhanging a deep water trench dropping to the icy depths over 700 feet below.

Over the next several weeks divers professionally skilled at deep water dives, along with their support teams, removed loose fishing nets and other debris prior to recovering the vessel. An ROV was sent down on several occasions to get a better look at the scene, as divers began to make their initial descents.

Each dive lasted for several hours with only an approximately thirty-minute work window available for the diver to actually work before they had to begin a slow, methodical ascent to a waiting decompression chamber at the surface. Divers then spent several additional hours decompressing in the chamber before safely exiting.

Thirty-six days after the Aleutian Isle sank the vessel was successfully lifted to the surface using extremely heavy large cables and straps that had been carefully wrapped and secured around the vessel at points along the length of the boat.

Once raised to the surface the vessel was determined to be too heavy to lift onto an awaiting barge. Hundreds and hundreds of gallons of diesel fuel had to be pumped from the vessel over a period of several days before the vessel was finally lifted onto a barge.

Forty days after the Aleutian Isle sank in Haro Strait, the threat to the pristine island coastline and wildlife had been removed. The entire dive operation took over three weeks and several million dollars to successfully accomplish the task. While a final report and findings have not been released, the vessel was seen the day before briefly running aground as it left port in Anacortes.