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Two people missing after landslide in Haines

Kindergarten teacher Janae Larson and her landlord, businessman David Simmons, live on a property in the path of the slide.
Jenae Larson and David Simmons, tenant and landlord, are missing after a landslide swept away their home on Beach Road in Haines.
Published: Dec. 4, 2020 at 6:46 AM AKST|Updated: Dec. 4, 2020 at 9:39 AM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The small Southeast Alaska community of Haines, just a ferry ride away from the state’s capital city, is reeling with heartache after a landslide tore down a mountainside, pushing everything in its path toward the water. Two people remain missing.

David Simmons, a global traveler with a talent for baseball and foreign languages, and his tenant, Jenae Larson, a hometown girl who returned to Haines after college to teach kindergarten, have not been heard from since the slide hit.

Two hours before the wall of mud heaved toward the ocean, Simmons spoke with his father by phone. Randy Simmons, who lives in California, told Alaska’s News Source his son commented on the heavy storms but otherwise it was a typically “wonderful” conversation the men had with each other when they spoke. The elder Simmons recalls thinking at the time his son was fortunate to live in high country so he wouldn’t flood.

“It never crossed my mind that mountain was going to come down and scrape this house off the face of the earth,” Simmons said.

Asked whether he felt his son might have survived, Simmons said no.

“I’m quite certain that’s what the outcome is. His house was crushed and pushed out in the ocean and he was in it. So, yeah, he’s gone. I just hope they can recover his body,” Simmons said. “He was my best friend in the entire world.”

Ground searchers were delayed Thursday, awaiting a determination from geologists that the area would be safe to traverse. Community volunteers and first responders were up before dawn prepping for what the day might hold. As they prepped and waited for more personnel to arrive and more assessments to be made, Simmons shared the remarkable adventures his son has had.

Living in Colorado, the men would take in Bronco games and downhill ski in Telluride. They shared a love of baseball, and in his junior year in high school, David Simmons fell in love with world travel, a passion that would eventually carry him to dozens of countries and foreign academic study. A Fulbright scholar, Simmons is fluent in several languages and has a mind for business. He most recently worked at the Haines Economic Development Corporation, helping people apply for CARES ACT money, Randy Simmons said.

Simmons describes his son as an avid adventurer, generous with his kindness and a knack for making friends. After visiting more than 80 countries, Simmons settles on Haines as his forever place.

“I feel so blessed that he discovered Haines and realized it is, you know, in his mind, the most beautiful place in the world and planned his entire life there,” Simmons said.

The place David Simmons decided to make home was where new college graduate Larson had her homecoming this year, transitioning from student to teacher, taking a job teaching kindergarten with the school district she grew up in, Roy Getchell the superintendent for the Haines School District told Alaska’s News Source in an interview Thursday. Getchell expressed hope Larson and David Simmons might still be found alive.

“Whenever there’s bad news during dark days, Haines shines its best. And I have hope in the people that are out there looking for her,” Getchell said.

Getchell said Larson has a gift for teaching and working with children that few educators display so early in their careers.

“We’re so privileged to have her. She’s a Haines school graduate, a Haines school, local Alaska grown educator. That’s not why we hired her. She’s phenomenal with kids well beyond her years, wise beyond her years. And it’s just been a tremendous asset to our staff in a very short amount of time,” Getchell said.

Starting the profession during a pandemic may not have been ideal, yet Larson has still excelled, he said.

“Could you imagine starting your career during COVID? It’s been difficult. She stepped right up and she continues to step up. And we’re proud that she’s part of our staff,” Getchell said.

Getchell said Larson’s teaching colleagues are among the search party. While it has felt like a very dark time, Getchell said the community is hopeful Larson and Simmons will be found, adding that the tremendous outpouring of support for Haines, and for victims of the landslide, has helped.

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