LIANE HANSEN, host:
The United States, Canada and Mexico have agreed to coordinate their response to any outbreak of avian flu in North America. The statement was signed this past week in Cancun, Mexico, where President Bush met with Mexico's President, Vicente Fox, and Canadian Prime Minister Steven Harper. Meanwhile, researchers in the United States are looking for genetic answers as to how the bird flu virus works. Tissue samples from victims of the 1918 pandemic have already provided a map of the virus. Those samples came from the tiny coastal community of Brevig Mission in Alaska.
Alaska Public Radio's Lori Townsend visited that village, where a mass grave holds the remains of the 72 victims.
LORI TOWNSEND reporting:
The grave has been opened twice by the same pathologist. In 1951, Johann Hultin convinced village elders to allow him to take tissue samples from bodies buried in permafrost. His lab attempts to map the virus were unsuccessful, but he returned in 1997, and when he did, he was once again given permission to re-open the grave.
William Cocoona(ph) was one of the villagers hired to help Hultin dig.
Mr. WILLIAM COCOONA (Resident, Brevig Mission, Alaska): At first, we didn't find nothing till we get near about 20 feet down and further down later we start finding the bodies. And that was pretty sad to see that, 'cause there were still bodies down up the permafrost and they had parkas, Eskimo, and they were wearing Eskimo clothes. That was something.
TOWNSEND: Walking to the gravesite on a windswept hill overlooking the Bearing Sea, Cocoona says his brother Warren was trouble by nightmares in the days that followed the exhumation.
Mr. COCOONA: If you could just picture this laying there.
TOWNSEND: The names and ages of the deceased are listed on a bronze plaque attached to a large wooden cross. The youngest, just days old, the oldest, 72; all died within five days.
Cocoona says he's seen drowning victims in the past; but nothing compared to the tragic site of bodies piled in the remote frozen grave.
Mr. COCOONA: We start finding the bodies over here on this side of the bigger cross. Back here, there's a whole bunch of bones and over here there's a whole bunch of bodies right over here just laying in all directions.
Ms. RITA OLANNA (Village Council Member): (Speaking foreign language)
TOWNSEND: While other artic communities turned people away with armed guards, Brevig Mission took in the sick and orphaned during the pandemic. So many people died so quickly. Village Council Member Rita Olanna says her grandfather told her even the sky seemed sad.
Ms. OLANNA: That it was all gray, like surrounding above the, you know, just that site over there. Like nature was mourning for them, you know, even though it was such a clear day.
TOWNSEND: Rita says her father was 14 when the pandemic hit. He didn't like to talk about those days, she says, but he did pass on a few stories. One was about a man who appeared to have spent his last moments trying to protect himself. He was found dead, crouched on one knee, pointing a rifle at the door.
Ms. OLANNA: He told us that they found him like that. He was stiff, the eyes were opened and he was dead. Maybe that's how quickly it was, you know, the flu was killing people, so sudden. They didn't know what he saw, you know, he was, they were wondering if he was hallucinating because of the sickness or whatever he was aiming at must have been real to him.
TOWNSEND: Today a real fear for this coastal community is the knowledge that wild birds can carry the H5N1 virus and that people can catch it just by handling the infected birds.
As winter moves on and the start of spring duck hunting gets closer, William Cocoona worries about that. Wild birds have been harvested for generations as a staple subsistence food. He acknowledges that for remote communities, there is little choice.
Mr. COCOONA: It's gonna be a lot of worry during the springtime when the ducks come back. We've gotta make a choice: hunt or live off of (unintelligible) food. I think they just gotta keep on huntin'. It's, you know, survival.
TOWNSEND: The disease has migrated from Asia to Europe and Africa. Health officials say it isn't a matter of if H5N1 reaches the U.S., it's merely a question of when. The northwest coast of Alaska, a major flyway for migrating birds, is considered a primary point of entry.
For NPR News, I'm Lori Townsend in Anchorage, Alaska.