By Melinda Munson
Late night Jan. 13, Skagway lost 28-year-old Anthony Bowers to a suspected overdose, possibly linked to fentanyl. Less than 24 hours later, James Cook, 44, also died of a suspected overdose, possibly linked to fentanyl.
Police have not released the names of the men but the identities of the deceased are common knowledge within the locality. Next of kin have been notified.
If the deaths are proven to be caused by fentanyl, they will be the first known fentanyl deaths in Skagway.
“Skagway municipal officials urge residents to dispose of any illegally obtained drugs immediately,” read a Jan. 14 release from Borough Manager Brad Ryan, shortly following the second death. “Two deaths within the last 24 hours are under investigation for possible drug overdose, but regardless of the outcome, municipal officials are urging a preponderance of caution. Our hearts go out to everyone in Skagway suffering from loss … check in on your family, friends and neighbors as we navigate this tragedy.”
On Jan 15, The Skagway Police Department (SPD) “seized a large number of pills that is believed to be fentanyl,” in part due to tips from the community, according to a SPD statement.
“For a long time, we felt like this was news, but now it’s here,” said Assemblymember Orion Hanson.
The brightly colored tablets found in Skagway are known as rainbow fentanyl and are designed to entice younger users.
According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), “fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine. Just two milligrams of fentanyl, which is equal to 10-15 grains of table salt, is considered a lethal dose. Without laboratory testing, there is no way to know how much fentanyl is concentrated in a pill or powder.”
The DEA states that the color of the pill does not indicate the concentration of fentanyl.
Police Chief Jerry Reddick said the investigation is ongoing and there is currently no one in custody. According to Reddick, SPD is working with the Southeast Alaska Cities Against Drugs task force and specifically Haines, “so both communities, as close as we are, are all on the same page.”
The Department of Health dispatched a nurse to address Skagway’s Jan. 18 crowded and emotional Public Safety Committee meeting. Nurse Megan Broklesby explained when and how to administer naloxone (name brand Narcan) to reverse an opioid overdose. With her, she brought a supply of fentanyl test strips and naloxone kits, which she and Mayor Andrew Cremata placed around town the following day. A limited number of test stips and naloxone kits are available from the clinic and Skagway Traditional Council. All of the drinking establishments in town have trained staff and supplies to deal with an opioid overdose.
Cremata, who spent most of Tuesday on the phone arranging for mental health support, said he was “moved” by the number of entities within the state that responded to his request for help, with over 40 agencies offering assistance.
In-person mental health professionals are available at Dahl Memorial Clinic Jan. 23-25. Call 907-983-2255 to schedule an appointment. Local provider John Hischer of Taiya Counseling Services, LLC, also provides services and is a certified chemical dependency counselor. The municipality provided the following list of mental health resources.
Sixth to 12th graders at Skagway School attended an assembly about opioid safety on Jan. 19. A town hall will be scheduled at a later date to discuss mitigation efforts.
Fire Chief Emily Rauscher urged anyone who suspects an opioid overdose to call emergency responders, even if naloxone is administered by a lay person.
“We need to get respiration back up. Definitely call 911,” Rauscher said.
Residents are urged not to touch suspicious substances and to call first responders.
The Skagway Traditional Council reminded Skagwegians to “not flush or throw away illicit drugs in the trash. This could be dangerous for public works, pets and wildlife. There is a disposal box at the clinic and police department.”
The SPD can also pick up drugs via tips from the P3Tips app. Anyone with information regarding illegal drug distribution in Skagway is encouraged to contact SPD.
“If you’re struggling with addiction, we can help you. If you’re dealing, the walls are closing in, you’re going to be caught and you’re going to be prosecuted,” Cremata said.