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Near the end of the Cold War, in one of the coldest places on Earth, the U.S. and the Soviet Union cooperated in a rescue effort that warmed hearts around the world.
The objects of all the work were three gray whales trying to survive by breathing through openings in the vast ice. And four people who now live in or near Omaha witnessed the international news media frenzy up close from Barrow, Alaska.
"It was such an incredible, strange story," said Sarah Newman, a Montessori teacher in Omaha. "Every day there were new developments, and people called from all over the world with ideas."
The 1988 rescue attempt has been made into a movie, "The Big Miracle," starring Drew Barrymore.
Sarah and husband David Harding lived in Barrow at the time, as did Rick Yoder and his wife, Elizabeth "Lissa" Nelson.
The town of Barrow is on the northern coast of Alaska. Point Barrow, jutting a few miles farther north, is the northernmost location on the North American continent.
From Omaha, it's not exactly a hop, skip and a jump — an hour's flight to Minneapolis, five hours flying to Anchorage and three more to Barrow. So how did the four Midlanders find themselves as young adults in the Land of the Midnight Sun? Well, jobs.
David, a writer and an Omaha native, had worked in Oregon and Washington. Several years after he made the trek north, Sarah, whom he had known since childhood, decided to follow him.
Rick, a mechanical engineer who now works at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, went north with Lissa, who had taken a job there as a veterinarian.
David said Barrow was the most interesting community he has ever lived in. The population was about 3,000 then, he said, though the 2010 Census count was 4,212.
"If you were dropped there out of the sky, you would never guess you were in the United States," David said. "It was like the moon with snow — no trees, a flat tundra. Two months of dark in the winter and two months of daylight in the summer."
But despite the "sensory deprivation," he said, he would never trade the experience of living there.
Said Sarah: "You'd go into someone's house, and they would be butchering a seal on the table. They would go out on snow machines, and a couple of days later they would return and their sleds would be laden with caribou. They took great pride in their subsistence hunting and their culture."
The dominant culture is Eskimo, and an Eskimo whale hunter near Point Barrow got the rescue effort under way — he spotted three gray whales clinging to life at a small hole in an ice sheet that had closed them in on all sides. As mammals, whales need to breathe in air and exhale through their blowholes to survive.
Over the next two weeks, marine mammal biologists from the U.S. government joined with oil company workers and Eskimos cutting holes in the ice with chainsaws. An estimated 200 members of the news media descended on Barrow, though the site of the rescue attempt was about 15 miles out from town.
David, who lived about 20 years overall in various parts of Alaska, was working at the local public radio station in Barrow, giving reports and answering calls from around the world — from the Australian Broadcasting Company to Radio Ireland.
"We'd come in in the morning," he recalled, "and a window in the newsroom would be filled with sticky-note messages."
Sarah said they also got calls at home in the middle of the night. "It was round-the-clock craziness."
Rick said ABC's "Good Morning America" flew Lissa out to the location of the rescue attempt and interviewed her. She observed on TV, as a veterinarian, that one of the whales didn't look well.
Sarah said that at first, she was mystified at the international attention. After all, she noted, the Arctic is a harsh place.
"Creatures — human and otherwise — are always dying," she recalls thinking. "Search and rescue is a big part of life there, and there is a lot of tragedy. Why the fuss over three whales?"
She finally understood, she said, when she saw the first video that set off the rescue attempt.
"It was a heart-stopping view of the three whales in a tiny open patch of water," she said, "with a long view of the immense field of ice around them."
A Soviet icebreaking ship eventually arrived to cut a path for the gray whales to the open sea. Two eventually were seen swimming toward the sea, though their fate wasn't known; the third, a younger one, wasn't seen.
David, Sarah and Rick, interviewed last week, all said they were pleased with the movie, saying that it was more accurate than the book about the rescue attempt. And they can live with some things in the movie that didn't actually happen, they said, such as Drew Barrymore's character diving underwater alone to make contact with the whales.
The moviemakers, Rick said, "did a pretty nice job overall of capturing the spirit of it all, and of showing the motivation for how things happened — and politically, of getting some pretty big things to happen. I'm thinking of the Russian icebreaker."
The Nebraskans who once were Alaskans say that despite the difficult weather, they enjoyed the whole experience of living in Barrow from the mid-1980s until 1990. As white people, they said, they were in the unfamiliar position of being in an ethnic minority, but they felt as though they were eventually accepted.
Rick said the Eskimo culture respects its elders and extends friendship to those who come from elsewhere. He felt "a sense of family offered by a people who had been there for thousands of years."
As far north as they lived a quarter-century ago, they were still 1,100 miles from the North Pole. Quipped Sarah: "We always said we were Santa's closest neighbors."
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