When Ralph Flores crashed his single-engine plane in the Yukon wilderness on a snowy afternoon in February 1963, the force of the landing knocked his only passenger, Helen Klaben, out cold for half an hour. She woke to the sight of blood streaming from gashes on the pilot’s head, mouth and chin; it pooled on the map she’d been holding in her lap.
Klaben’s right foot was stuck between her seat and the door. She could already tell that her left arm was broken. As she assessed the grim particulars of the wreck, she saw on the plane’s thermometer that the chill outside had dipped below -40 C.
Sitting in the bush, Klaben summoned the thought that ended up carrying her through the next seven frigid and painful weeks.
“Hey — I’m alive!”
Klaben, the New York woman whose incredible story of survival without food or emergency gear riveted the North American public when she and Flores were finally rescued after 49 days from the makeshift campsite where they’d sheltered amid the trees, died on Sunday in Palo Alto, Calif., after a long illness. She was 76.
Born on Dec. 18, 1941, Klaben had never ventured far from Brooklyn, her hometown, when she decided at age 21 to take a road trip with a friend to Alaska. Klaben spent a few months working in Fairbanks before she caught a ride south with Flores, a Mexican-born pilot who was heading home to his wife and children in California.
Flores, who was 41 at the time, was ill equipped to fly through inclement weather and rammed the plane into some trees near the Yukon-B.C. border when he descended close to the ground to try to spot the Alaska Highway, his reference point for the journey.
He and Klaben were stranded in the woods near the town of Watson Lake for the next 49 days, subsisting on hot water and toothpaste after they exhausted their meagre food supply and staging futile attempts to attract the notice of any aircraft that rumbled in the distance. Pilots in northern B.C. banded with the RCMP for an expansive search, but a block-lettered headline in the Whitehorse Star newspaper on Feb. 7, three days after the crash, encapsulated the survivors’ plight: LITTLE HOPE FOR MISSING PLANE.
Aboard the downed plane, Klaben and Flores had a handful of sardine, tuna and fruit cans and some crackers and protein pills, but little in the way of outdoor equipment. In lieu of sleeping bags they insulated themselves from the frost with a tarp, cushions and spare clothes. Flores had a hunting knife and matches to start a fire. His jaw was shattered and his ribs were crushed. Klaben could barely move thanks to her injured foot.
The effort they undertook to survive became the stuff of legend in the Canadian North and beyond, a tale that commanded the cover of Life Magazine and inspired a TV movie called Hey, I’m Alive, named for a memoir of the ordeal Klaben published in 1964.
It took 10 days after the crash for Klaben and Flores to run out of food and three days to power through the initial agony of fasting. Flores had fashioned a primitive slingshot, only to learn his aim wasn’t true enough to strike down rabbits; instead, he focused on collecting wood and boiling water for them to drink as their primary meal. Klaben sent mayday calls over their radio whenever she heard a plane pass overhead, but her pleas went unheeded.
Klaben and Flores made for a strange pair. A pious Mormon who had stocked his plane with a trunk full of religious texts, Flores spent much of their time in seclusion trying to convince his Jewish companion to accept Jesus Christ as her saviour. When Klaben contended that she respected Christ’s teachings but didn’t believe he was divine, Flores expressed his fear that rescuers wouldn’t find them until she converted.
A little over a month into their isolation, Flores set out alone to try to find any sign of civilization. Klaben began to diarize her experience the day after he left. In a letter to her family, she wrote about her trip to Alaska, her introduction to Flores and their takeoff in his plane. But she couldn’t bring herself to recount the crash.
“The whole thing sounded too much like an epitaph,” she later wrote in her memoir. “There’s no point writing the end, I told myself, till the end has come.”
Flores came back after eight days and said he’d found a clearing about a kilometre away with fewer trees to obstruct them from view. Braving -40 C weather, they hobbled there over the course of five hours and shortly thereafter heard a chainsaw revving at a trapper’s cabin somewhere to the north.
Flores walked on snowshoes in the direction of the noise and eventually reached a frozen beaver pond. He stamped the letters SOS into the snow, along with an arrow that pointed toward their lodging.
By then, the air search for Klaben and Flores had been called off after several fruitless weeks. It was by stroke of fortune that as a pilot from Watson Lake flew over the pond on his way to a big game outfitting shop, his companion noticed the desperate message below.
The pilot, Chuck Hamilton, landed his plane on the pond the following day, March 25, 1963, and tromped into the forest with a group of rescuers to tote Klaben and Flores to safety — hours before a savage snowstorm overtook their new shelter.
At a Whitehorse hospital, doctors took note of Flores’ emaciated 120-pound frame and reported that he’d shed a third of his original weight in the wilderness. Klaben, down to 100 pounds from 140 and doomed to lose some toes to amputation, nevertheless looked sunnier than her travel partner. As she spoke to inquiring reporters from the Whitehorse Star, she thrust her healthy right arm in the air and vocalized a soon-to-be familiar motto: “Hey, I’m alive!”
Flores’ licence to fly was revoked a few months after the crash, but he was allowed to resume flying in 1966. He died aged 75 in 1997.
Klaben, meantime, lived for 55 borrowed years after that winter in the Yukon. Her life was “full and unconventional,” said her nephew, Jeff Klaben. She taught people how to drive, skate and play tennis. She cooked and cared deeply about scientific research. She was friendly, generous and cheerfully argumentative. Preceded in death by her husband, Bob Kahn, and her six siblings, Klaben is survived by sons Stephen and Rocky, as well as by six grandchildren.
As she grew older, Klaben spoke about how she survived in the Yukon to her family and the occasional organized audience, from Air Force pilots to Girl Scouts. Several years ago, Jeff accompanied to her one such talk at a yacht club. As they walked by the water to the event, a wave splashed over the sea wall and soaked Klaben — who dried herself off and delivered a stirring speech.
“For everything challenging in the world, something that’s purely, genuinely inspiring is that someone can survive against all odds. That still affected people. They sent her notes and letters,” Jeff said. “I like the idea that her legacy still has an impact.”
In the epilogue of her memoir, Klaben reflected on the lessons she took from her adventure, as she called it, in the wilderness. Those 49 days were wonderful not terrible, she wrote. Flores had taught her about faith, courage, endurance and strength. She figured he was “one of the most remarkable men in the world.”
In the final paragraph, Klaben left a parting thought on what she’d learned about herself.
“I discovered that God is Love. I discovered for the first time really how much I love my mother and family,” she wrote.
“I discovered something else I never knew before: I love life.”
— With files from Tristin Hopper
Note from WSOE.Org : This content has been auto-generated from a syndicated feed.