Web posted Monday, March 8, 2004
Channel skull find rekindles discussion of local legend
Whether it was death by squid or scuba accident, some say bone fragments are George Tonsgard's
By TONY CARROLL
Regardless of whether anyone really saw a giant squid pull George Tonsgard beneath the Gastineau Channel waves nearly a half century ago, some people now see him in pieces of skull found this winter on the muddy seabed.
Bill Tonsgard Jr. said a piece of a skull found Jan. 31 by divers near the downtown Juneau waterfront certainly could have come from his uncle, who disappeared while diving in the channel in July 1956.
"It's possible," he said. "There are eight or nine people missing around there."
One of them, without question, is his uncle, and he is more confident that a skull fragment found in October 2001 came from George Tonsgard.
Axle Nelson, who knew George Tonsgard, said he believes both finds are remains of his friend, who died a most dramatic death.
"Somebody said something came up out of the water and grabbed him," Nelson explained, saying the skull fragment was "right exactly about where he went down."
Chuck McLeod said his fishing boat came into port the day after George Tonsgard disappeared. But people talked about what happened, he said. He heard that people saw George surface, take off his mask and call out for help before an arm came out of the water, "like an octopus or squid."
John Lachelt, who owns the Channel Dive Center, said the story is well-known. "I know it's been around a long time." Although he has never seen a giant squid while diving in the channel, he said some very well could live in Southeast Alaska waters.
"Those are just stories," said Bud Ivey, another Juneau resident. He said he was only about 18 when he was on the boat that took George out to dive for a ladder that had come off a steam ship.
"I thought he might have ripped his scuba gear," Ivey said. "He came to the surface and hollered for help, and then he went down again."
He believes George dropped his weighted belt and came up too fast, getting the bends - a painful decompression sickness - sending him back to the bottom.
As for the suggestion George was pulled down by some sort of sea creature, "we've never had any evidence of that," Ivey added.
He said what did happen was difficult enough to watch. He had become friends with George working to build Juneau-Douglas High School.
Another story was that George was pulled down by a submerged cable, he said.
His nephew said he didn't see what happened, although he has lived with the story. He was about 8 at the time, he said.
Whatever happened, George Tonsgard wasn't recovered.
The younger Tonsgard, though, said he has definite suspicions about the October 2001 find - a skull fragment that included part of the upper jaw and several teeth. At the time, police reported that it appeared to be more than a few weeks old, but less than a century old.
Police Capt. Tom Porter said the department has asked the State Crime Lab in Anchorage to compare the recent find with the 2001 remains. Last week, he said police hadn't heard about any findings.
Tonsgard said he didn't see the skull fragment found in 2001, although he talked to police. He understood that it appeared to be from someone who would have been his uncle's age, and it included some apparently foreign dental work - a crude gold crown.
He said his uncle had been in Japan with the military. "George had some dental work done in Japan." He has requested dental records, but the Army sent him a letter telling him that he wasn't related closely enough.
Local Native health records no longer exist, he said.
Where George Tonsgard ended up has been "something I've wondered about for years," he said. He had another uncle who died in a plane crash, and his remains were never found, Tonsgard added.
Without a positive identification, bones are not enough to answer the questions, he said.
"For a long time, people lived under the wharf out there," said Lachelt, who makes in excess of 400 dives a year. There are plenty of artifacts to keep divers interested, such as bottle and crockery - bits and pieces of things that were thrown off of cruise ships up to a century ago.
Despite the story of George Tonsgard, he said all of his encounters with undersea creatures - humpback whales, orcas and sea lions, for example - have been positive.
He would have reason to fear a giant squid, he said. "They are pretty predatory." But he wouldn't have any fear of running into a giant squid in the Gastineau Channel. "I imagine there are one or two squid out there."
You have to understand there are animals out there," he said, calling an attack "a limited risk."
McLeod, who said he has been in Juneau so long that he can remember "when Mt. Juneau was a little mole hill," said he knows there are big squid out there. And he knows there is a story beyond what the police are saying about the skull find.
"How could they say there was no foul play?" he asked. "If a big sea monster got hold of him, that would be foul play."