Read an Excerpt
Moments of Truth
A slab avalanche about two seconds into its release © jim bay
The problem . . . was not that people weren't capable of telling the truth; it was that they weren't able to understand what they were hearing. The truth was not a line from here to there.
-Jeffrey Lent, In the Fall
Jerry had been shoveling for days. it felt like mud, but it was only snow, snow, and more snow. His town was more a battleground than the dreamy winter scene of paperweight globes. Trees were toppling, roofs were in danger, and telephone poles plastered with wind-driven snow appeared double their normal diameter. Most mornings the lean fifty-year-old flooring contractor and occasional longshoreman didn't bother to throw on more than flannel slippers and bathrobe to shovel a soggy furrow from house to car. But this January 2000 morning in the isolated fishing port of Cordova, Alaska, the monitor heater in his house was down and Jerry had burned the last of the firewood stored close at hand, so he told Martha, his partner of more than twenty years, that he would dig his way out to the detached garage for another load. Knowing this wouldn't be a trivial project, he pulled on gray sweatpants and a hooded shirt, ribbed cotton socks and shoes.
Sequestered on the rocky eastern edge of Prince William Sound in southcentral Alaska, Cordova is not connected to the rest of the state by road. Instead, the twenty-five hundred year-round residents of Cordova depend on the Copper River Highway-which might otherwise seem a misnomer for a two-lane road with intermittent traffic-as a vital corridor linking the town at waterside with the airport twelve miles east. If you want to leave Cordova, you must do so by air or water. If you want to stay, you can forget about traffic lights or parking meters and take your pick of seven bars. Jerry and Martha, who moved north from Virginia in 1980, were among those who stayed. Since 1991 they had lived in what seemed an idyllic spot, sandwiched between the crystalline emerald water of Eyak Lake and the steep slant of the Heney Range. Known as 5.5 Mile for its distance from town, the neighborhood consisted of just over a dozen houses and two warehouses strung along a short dirt road that looped at both ends to join the highway. Some of the dwellings, particularly those on the lakeside, were nestled in clusters of tall thick-boughed spruce, and many, in familiar Alaska fashion, were surrounded by an array of boats on trailers, storage sheds, motor homes, and long-dead vehicles scattered about like lawn ornaments. Just above the houses, the mountain's slope was a clean white scar in winter and a jungle of prickly bushes in summer.
Jerry had been making tedious progress when he heard a rumbling like distant thunder. Looking up the broad fan-shaped lower slope on the far side of the Copper River Highway, he saw a roiling, fast-falling curtain of snow. Jerry had lived at the foot of the mountain long enough to be acquainted with avalanches. The one that had grazed the neighborhood a few years earlier had been nothing more than a wraith of powdery snow and wind by the time it reached Jerry's doorstep, and Jerry figured this one would be the same. Glum at the prospect of even more shoveling, he hurried inside his house. He had one hand on the royal-blue boiler-room door that would lead him upstairs to Martha, who would be lingering over coffee and the chat of morning television, when he heard the roar that would change his life.
Almost before he could register alarm, Jerry pivoted and saw the back wall of his house rushing toward him as if it had been shot from a cannon. In a split second, he guessed, he'd be pinned against the next wall and that would be the end of him. Then that wall exploded in a starburst as well, and Jerry became just another piece of flying debris in a mad disintegrating whirl of blue door, furnace, hot water heater, wooden beams, insulation, fractured pipes, Sheetrock, and arrows of shattered glass. Somewhere in the same maelstrom was Martha.
l a few houses away, twenty-four-year-old Christal Czarnecki had, as always, risen early enough to walk the dogs before work, leaving her boyfriend, Wes Burton, in bed nursing an injured knee. She was accustomed to shuffling along the loop road through heavy snow, her head bowed in deference to gusty winds-Cordova could credibly claim patent to virulent storms. Christal had, however, no presentiment that she was following the footsteps of another woman who had been out for a similar walk thirty-six years earlier when an avalanche billowed across the road, burying her to the waist and killing her dog. Still, Christal had forged only a hundred yards, barely able to see her feet in a whiteout thickened by fifty-mile-per-hour winds, before she decided to cut her walk short and turned for home.
From bed, the place beside him crinkled and cool, Wes heard Christal start the shower in the adjacent bathroom. He also heard a distant hum he assumed was a road grader rattling along the highway. Within seconds, though, the noise swelled to a rumble, as if a tractor was idling impatiently outside the house. Wes's last thought before events became visceral was that a jet was flying directly overhead and at unusually low altitude.
Without a warning flicker, the power cut off. So did the water. Christal, naked in the windowless bathroom, felt the house tremble like the flame of a candle, and then shudder. As she scrambled for balance, the shower door derailed and clattered against the far wall while shelves and picture hooks rained objects. The crashes confirmed what Christal knew but could not comprehend: the house was moving.
The ruckus was abruptly replaced by an even eerier stillness. Wet and shivering, Christal crept barefoot from the dark bathroom. Wes met her at the door, his muscled arms outstretched. Together, as though they were venturing onto a new planet, they explored their house. In the kitchen the refrigerator lay tipped, its door ajar and contents spilled in a slurry. Next to it the microwave sat on the floor, jauntily topped by a lamp shade. Drawers that had rolled open brimmed with escaping utensils. It looked as though everything in the room had been briefly granted life and then caught in the middle of a mad orgy.
Back in the bedroom, Wes and Christal stood in the jagged opening where moments before they could have stepped through a sliding glass door onto a balcony affording a grand view of Eyak Lake. But the balcony was gone; later they would find it cast adrift in the snow. Only when Wes and Christal saw the roof of their Toyota RAV4 inches below their toes did they realize that the carport and workshop that constituted the first floor of the house had disintegrated. Untethered, the second floor had sailed twenty feet through the air like a raft, with Wes and Christal aboard. Still more or less intact, the second floor had parked itself on the hood of the Toyota, its leading edge rammed against the steering wheel.
l while jerry and his neighbors had spent many of the days leading up to January 26, 2000, shoveling nearly six feet of snow at sea level, the mountain that shadowed them had spent most of the month in the clouds, unobtrusively loading itself with twice as much snow and weathering hurricane-force winds. The huge treeless bowl just below the summit ridge curved like an amphitheater equal in surface area to a large sports stadium; it could not have been engineered to collect new or wind-whipped snow more efficiently. Even the tallest professional basketball players would have disappeared altogether in the deeper drifts.
January 26 had dawned another white day. If the top of the mountain hadn't still been shrouded, witnesses might have seen a thin crack arc across the slope, announcing itself with a boom that was likely lost in the ratcheting wind. At first the crack would have looked like a tear in the clouds, a rent easily stitched up with white thread and forgotten. But, in a blink, it would have wrapped more than a half mile around the bowl and, as if yawning, widened as a plate of snow more than six feet thick lost its grip on the mountainside. More ruptures would have shot along the sides, through the middle, and along the bottom edge of the plate until, for one suspended moment, it resembled a child's jigsaw puzzle. And then there would have been too much motion for the eye to track, the pieces buckling and breaking into smaller and smaller shards, the whole slope a shattering windowpane. Falling and tumbling, shoving forward a tongue of displaced air, gathering speed, the avalanche would have vacuumed up the massive quantities of loose snow that lay in its path, building a thundering cloud of its own that ballooned higher and higher into the sky, becoming the only view. This boiling cloud would have looked soft and cottony, its advancing edge dancing and surging like an ocean wave, but it was a barrage of stinging icy particles, a vortex of loud punishing wind. Behind the cloud, bumping along the craggy ground, was an unstoppable torrent of millions of pounds of snow.
The term avalanche stems from the French verb avaler, which means "to swallow" but originally meant "to descend." Within four seconds the 5.5 Mile avalanche was dropping at freeway speeds, still accelerating as it pounded down even steeper slopes and flew over the edges of cliffs. The avalanche had already plunged almost the height of the Empire State Building when it reached the narrow squeezing gut in its hourglass-shaped run. There it erupted, the cloud shinnying up the gully walls and shooting more than four hundred feet into the air. Acres of trees two or three feet in diameter that had stood for nearly a century snapped like raw spaghetti and shredded into strands almost as thin. A behemoth spruce, six feet thick and four hundred years old, sacrificed limbs. Inside the turbulent, deafening snow cloud now were hurling branches and sheared tree trunks, errant missiles seeking targets.
Jerry didn't see the avalanche until it was about twenty seconds and almost two thousand vertical feet into its life, on the last steep drop above the Copper River Highway. It didn't fall so much as pounce upon the road, obliterating nearly a thousand linear feet of pavement under piles of snow as deep as thirty feet. Its forward edge now smoking 90 to 120 miles per hour, the avalanche tore through the subdivision as though the houses were made of paper, dissipating the last of its energy only when it was more than a quarter mile out onto the ice of Eyak Lake. From start to finish, the avalanche had taken less than thirty seconds.
l emergency dispatch in Cordova is not a long bank of telephones manned by an anonymous army in an isolated soundproof room. On the morning of January 26, it was two women named Dixie and Gerry sitting in a nondescript office inside the joint police and fire headquarters, not far from the docked fishing fleet and the town's only bakery. Their early morning entries are neatly printed; clearly the available minutes exceeded the action. Most of the calls reported fallen trees, power outages, or poor visibility on the roads. But after the first 911 call was logged at 9:56 a.m., the letters begin to slant, with greater space between them, as though each is vainly trying to keep up with the next.
The first 911 call was from a 5.5 Mile resident. The second was from a plow driver who had been heading into town on the Copper River Highway. The air was still gauzy with suspended snow particles when he noticed a large spruce tree across the road. It was not until he slowed that he was able to distinguish the mound of ruffled snow blocking his path. Unseen, death had darted in front of his plow.
Ducking into the hallway, Gerry alerted Bob Plumb, the deputy fire chief and the sole paid fire department employee, that "something big" had happened at 5.5 Mile. Plumb, already dressed to shovel the headquarters' roof, instructed, "Call Dewey!" and ran for his truck. Three minutes later dispatch logged the first damage report from the plow driver: "Gunnerson, Jerry LeMaster, Clayton, Logan houses hit hard-looking for survivors."
Copyright © 2005 by Jill Fredston
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical,
including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.