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Rapid community response saves Dillingham man after snowgo accident

Dillingham resident Josh Willaert suffered a traumatic brain injury in a snowmachine accident on April 23.
Joe Willaert
Joe Willaert
Dillingham resident Josh Willaert holding a halibut while fishing. He was severely injured in a snowmachine accident on April 23, and is now in recovery.

Josh Willaert, 30, was heading home from an April goose hunting trip with three hunting partners, brothers Bruce, Kenny and Craig Savo. The group decided to take a detour to see if they were close enough to hunt a bear reported nearby.

But when they passed a creek near the Iowithla River, Willaert’s machine shot out over the edge of the bank and fell several feet. He hit his head as he crashed. His brother, Joe, said the Savos’ actions in the minutes after saved Willaert’s life.

“What we know from the doctors now and the medical teams and the surgical teams and all the staff is that Josh is alive because of the three guys,” he said.

Willaert suffered a frontal skull fracture and more than 20 fractures in his face. One of the hunters, Craig Savo, is a certified first responder and an assistant fire chief. He said he always keeps a first aid kit when traveling.

“So we were able to use that equipment to control the bleeding and stuff out in the field,” he said.

Savo said he texted people in Dillingham through his InReach satellite messenger. His brother, Kenny, also found cell service on a nearby hill and called people in town for help.

Savo considered calling State Troopers, he said, but the response from back home was almost immediate. Friends contacted a local pilot, Gabe Davis, who was already at the airport. Davis was able to take off within minutes, flying 25 miles in his ski plane and arriving at the scene half an hour later.

“My main concern was just finding a place to land,” he said. “In the spring sometimes, with all the soft snow, it can be pretty dangerous for ski planes.”

Davis managed to land about 200 yards from the group.

“They were able to put Josh in a pull-behind sled and get him over to the plane. And I had a little piece of plywood with me, so we put him on that,” he said.

Davis transported the group to the airport, where an ambulance was waiting. Willaert was airlifted to Providence Hospital in Anchorage, where he underwent two surgeries last week. Joe said his brother has started speech, physical and occupational therapy. He even managed to lead his family in a short prayer last week, and has started talking about home, both in Minnesota and Alaska.

“Still, there's probably some memory problems there — definitely very serious TBI, traumatic brain injury, that can take a long time to recover from,” Joe said.

Willaert is currently surrounded by his family and friends. They’ve started a GoFundMe page to help cover the cost of medical expenses.

“Josh is as strong as an ox,” Joe said. “So they started this page. I believe it’s #JoshWillaertStrong.”

His family is also providing regular updates on how he’s doing on the page. For now, they say, the road to recovery will take time.

The Department of Public Safety provides guidelines on snowmachine safety on its website. DPS also produced a short video on riding safely. The Alaska Safe Riders organization has additional resources and safety tips.

Get in touch with the author at or 907-842-2200.

Christina McDermott began reporting for KDLG, Dillingham’s NPR member station, in March 2023. Previously, she worked with KCBX News in San Luis Obispo, California, where she focused on local news and cultural stories. She’s passionate about producing evocative, sound-rich work that informs and connects the public.
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