Molly O Ahlgren, an EMT and rescue diver with the Sitka, Alaska, Volunteer Fire Department, died in the line of duty on November 30 in a boat crash on Gavanski Island. Ahlgren and another EMT, Korie Holmes, were on a medical call to the Siginaka Islands, where state police recruits were taking part in a survival training exercise. One of the trainees suffered a severely lacerated finger requiring medical attention, and the EMT’s responded in a 31-foot private boat, the Amy Nicole.
The Sitka Fire Department, which includes nine career and 80+ volunteer personnel, serves an island community of 8,000 residents. Rescuers rely on private boats, because the department does not own any watercraft and no mutual aid is available.
According to news reports, the Amy Nicole ran aground in the dark, and Ahlgren, who had been standing in a stairway, was thrown forward violently, striking her head and falling to the lower deck. She received severe cervical spine injuries and died almost immediately
Ahlgren, 47, was an aquatic ecologist and a highly respected fisheries professor at Sheldon Jackson College in Sitka, where she had taught since 1990. College president Art Cleveland told reporters, “She was such an integral part of our program in fisheries... She was just a phenomenal person. Students thought so highly of her. Everyone is in such shock."
She was a native of Minnesota, attending high school in Duluth, where she excelled in athletics, including marathon running, and was in the Olympic trials for Nordic ski racing. She studied fisheries at the University of Idaho, graduating summa cum laude in 1980, and completed her masters and doctorate in fish ecology at Michigan Tech University.
Ahlgren was an active researcher, publishing much of her scientific work. She had “a soft spot for underdogs,” which she said was how she came to study the sea cucumber that was the focus of her work for twelve years. She was named president of the Alaska Chapter of the American Fisheries Society at its November conference in Sitka. She was a dedicated environmentalist and a passionate teacher who felt her role was “to show people how to encounter the mystery of nature,” and she worked hard to transform the (at the time non-functional) wet lab and aquarium at the college into a dynamic resource for the entire community.
Ahlgren joined the Sitka Fire Department in 1994 as a member of its dive rescue team. In May of 2003 she got her EMT-1 certification and began volunteering as an EMT. She was an avid SCUBA diver, holding certification as a Dive Master, and also held a 100-ton master's license. Deciding she need to start “expanding and taking chances,” she discovered ballet late in life, performing as Mother Ginger in “The Nutcracker Suite.” She was a founding board member of the Sitka Friends of Dance.
Friend and co-worker Roberta White spoke movingly of Ahlgren. “She had the most amazing blue eyes, and always a huge smile... Never a bad word or a grouchy face. Always that amazing smile. She was just one of those truly rare people.”
“Everything was a learning experience for her. She loved learning... She had such an enthusiasm for the sea and everything in it, down to the smallest creature in the mud. She’d pop up from a dive and go ‘Oh! Ooh! Ooh! This is good! I just saw...’ and rattle off the long Latin name of some animal, and explain to you what it did. Learning was exciting, and it never stopped.”
Ahlgren, White, and Holmes were part of a group of Sitka FD women who get together periodically for a “girls’ night out.” White said, “We share food, share our lives, talk and laugh and solve the world’s problems. Molly had been so busy organizing the state fisheries conference that she hadn’t been able to come to the last girls’ night. She was going to take us to the aquarium next time, to see everything she had worked so hard on. We’re going to do that now in honor of her.”
Friends wrote of Ahlgren in her obituary, “Molly touched many people and had many friends. She walked lightly on the earth, with long strides and a dog by her side. Friends remember her brilliant intellect and her vibrant expression of life. She was a lifelong learner, an inspiration to all who knew her because of her courage, perseverance, and authenticity. Sitka and the world will be lessened without her light.”
A celebration of Ahlgren’s life was held on December 6 at Sheet'ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi, the community center of the Sitka Tlingit people. A procession to the Sitka Fire Hall and reception followed. A flag was flown over the state capitol in her honor, and was presented to her family.
She is survived by her parents, Isabel and Cliff Ahlgren; brother and sister-in-law Larry and Nancy Ahlgren; by Susan Stanford, Patti MacPike, and Linda Janacek, sisters in friendship and spirit; and by Lacy, her walking companion.
A scholarship through the American Fisheries Society is being established in Molly's name. Donations can be sent to the Molly Ahlgren Scholarship Fund, American Fisheries Society Alaska Chapter, c/o Ray Hander, Treasurer, 101 12th Ave., Room 110, Fairbanks, AK 99701.
Some of the information in this article was taken from an obituary written by Molly Ahlgren’s friends. It is used here by the kind permission of the Sitka Sentinel. Thanks also to Roberta White of the Sitka Fire Department for sharing her remembrances of Ahlgren.
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