Each Tuesday about two dozen people spending the winter in and around this remote eastern Alaska community, a virtual ghost town since the Depression, come together at the airstrip near the Kennicott Glacier to meet the mail plane.
"Around here, there are so few of us that we know each other by our boot tracks," McCarthy resident Nancy Gibert said. "You walk out for water, and you say, 'Hey, so and so's been by on the path.' "
But a week ago the pilgrimage was turned into two hours of terror as six people were killed and two wounded in a series of seemingly inexplicable shootings. Louis Hastings, 39, a relative newcomer to the area, has been arrested and charged in the case.
Last Tuesday, a man with a rifle hunted down and shot more than half the residents of the McCarthy area as they waited for the mail plane.
Three of them, alerted to danger by others, the sound of shots and the sight of blood on the deep snow, were killed from ambush as they waited for help. Hastings, who traveled between McCarthy and Anchorage, 230 miles west of here, where his wife lives, has been charged in Anchorage with six counts of first-degree murder, one count of attempted murder and one count of assault. He was arraigned in Anchorage last week. A plea of not guilty was entered by the court pending a grand jury review.
Hastings is being held on $300,000 cash bond for a psychiatric examination. His attorney, a public defender, will not comment on the case.
An unemployed computer programmer who police said apparently has no criminal record, Hastings had lived for about a year in an old house near the abandoned Kennecott copper mine about four miles north of the McCarthy airstrip. Neighbors said he was quiet, seldom speaking to others when he came for mail each Tuesday.
Bonnie Morris, a seven-year resident of the area, summed up the survivors' feelings the day after the shootings when she said: "A nobody came in here and wiped out the pillars of one of the few self-sufficient communities in Alaska."
Standing at the airstrip, near body bags containing the remains of the victims, she said, "These people lying around here were not your average people . . . . These are the people who inspired the rest of us when we came here to build a sane, healthy life."
The beauty of the area, according to residents, has attracted summer tourists and Anchorage residents seeking second homes. But they said only a small number over the years decided to stay and live year round.
This area is so remote that on the day of the shootings the victims, already beyond the reach of electric power lines or telephones, were unable to notify authorities by radio because sunspots were causing interference.
That morning, Maxine Edwards, 52, who has lived in the surrounding valley since the 1950s, said goodbye to her husband and, pulling a small plastic sled, crossed the frozen Kennicott River on her way to the Hegland house about 100 feet from the midpoint of the McCarthy airstrip to pick up groceries that would be delivered by the mail plane.
For the 12 people living near McCarthy and about as many more in the surrounding valley, Lester and Florence Hegland served as unofficial postmasters. Les, 64, and Flo, 58, had lived here for more than 20 years. They had added an enclosed porch to their house so that groceries delivered by plane could be kept without freezing until they were picked up by other residents.
One of the other residents was Tim Nash, 37, who lived in McCarthy for about seven years and had nearly finished building a log cabin with hand tools. He met his wife, Amy, 25, when she came to McCarthy as a summer tourist.
About 9 a.m. Tuesday, Christopher Richards, 29, who lived a mile from the Nashes, appeared in the snow outside the Nash cabin. Shot in the face and neck, he was one of the two who survived the shootings. Richards later said in interviews and statements to the state police that he told the Nashes that Hastings came to his cabin at about 8:30 a.m. and "out of the blue" shot him twice.
"Look, you're already dead," Richards said Hastings told him. "If you'll just quit fighting, I'll make it easy for you."
Richards said he grabbed a carving knife from his kitchen counter and stabbed Hastings in the leg, then ran out the door for help.
Tim and Amy Nash carried the wounded Richards to the north end of the airstrip in their snowmobile and contacted a local pilot, Gary Green. Then Tim Nash, armed with a shotgun, went to warn other residents.
At the Hegland house, Nash later told others when he returned to he airstrip that he "smelled gunsmoke and saw blood." Nash evidently encountered the gunman there, fired at him and was shot in the leg.
The bodies of Lester and Florence Hegland and Maxine Edwards were found later on a bed in back of the house. All had been shot at close range with a rifle.
Nash returned to the north end of the airstrip to tell the others what he had seen. Despite his wound, he decided to stay and warn anyone else to stay away from the Hegland house.
Pilot Green then took off with the first wounded person, Richards, and radioed to warn off the mail plane scheduled to land in McCarthy at 11 a.m. Because of his transmitter's limited range, Green had to fly for a while before he was able to radio for help to his destination, Glennallen, 100 miles away and site of the closest state police detachment.
Meanwhile, Amy, who had joined her husband at the north end of the runway, and Tim Nash were shot and killed by the gunman from woods between the Hegland house and the airstrip, according to the state police.
The other victims were Donna Byram, 32, and Harley King, 61, who were shot as they rode toward the airstrip on a snowmobile. Byram had scheduled a ride out on the mail plane and had caught a lift to McCarthy with King, a retired hunting guide who had driven in 15 miles that morning on his snowmobile.
According to Byram, the other person who survived the shootings, she spotted blood on the snow when she and King arrived at the airstrip on the snowmobile. She said she tried yelling a warning to King but could not make herself heard over the noisy machine.
Then she was struck in the arm by a shot. King tried to drive away from the airstrip but also was hit. The snowmobile ran at high speed into a snowbank. On impact, Byram and King were thrown off, and King broke a leg.
Byram said later she was petrified when she saw someone with a rifle running on the airstrip toward them. But she recalled that King looked at her and said, "Go up and see if Les Hegland has a gun. Both of us don't need to die."
As she ran into the woods, she said later, she heard King call out, apparently to the gunman: "Here I am, over this way." State police said Byram recalled that the gunman walked up to King, who was immobilized in the snow, and shot him in the head.
In an interview, King's widow, Jo, who talked with Byram and the troopers, related Byram's account of what occurred next. After seeing King killed, Byram said she struggled to the Hegland house, unaware of the earlier carnage there. She found the front door kicked in and, seeking a hiding place, crouched next to a nearby greenhouse.
The man she saw shoot King, she said, searched the area, muttering: "One not dead, one not dead." He did not see her, she said.
Several hours later and several miles away, the first helicopter carrying state police from Glennallen spotted a man on a snowmobile. Police said he waved as he got off the vehicle, initially identified himself as Christopher Richards before being identified as Hastings, and then was arrested.
In the aftermath, McCarthy resident Bonnie Morris remembered that she had gone to visit the Heglands that Tuesday morning on her dogsled and would have stayed, but one of her dogs was in heat. She did not learn about the killings until that night as she sat with her boy friend, listening to the radio in the light from a kerosene lamp.
"Six people. That was just about everyone we could think of," she said. "About that time, the helicopter came circling overhead, shining its beam down into the woods. We thought there was somebody still out there in the woods. We were huddled under the bed.
"Finally the troopers found us. We were the only light, the only surviving couple in town."