In his last letter, written in 1965, Tony described how he was living with the sister of a famous plane crash survivor. This is her story….
In 1963, beauty-obsessed Helen Klaben, 21, decided to see life outside of Manhattan for the first time, and set off for Fairbanks in Alaska.
En route, she was amazed to see real cows in fields, and mused, ‘Those that I met in restaurants, gas stations, motels weren’t hicks, as I had thought anyone outside New York to be.’
After her stay in Fairbanks, she hitched a ride south in a small plane, agreeing to split the fuel costs with the pilot. Ralph Flores, 42, was an electrician, flying home to his wife and children in California.
But although Flores had his own five-seater plane, he didn’t know how operate his radio or ‘fly on the instruments’ if visibility was lost, and was unable to navigate. His plan was to simply follow the Alaska Highway south.
When they were swamped by a heavy snowstorm, he was soon lost. As he dipped low to hunt for the road, he clipped a tree instead, and crashed nose-first into the ground.
The plane was wrecked. The pair were now stranded deep in the forests of the Alaskan wilderness on the border between British Columbia and Yukon, where temperatures regularly dip below -40 C.
It was a disaster. While Flores suffered a broken jaw and facial lacerations, Klaben had a broken arm and badly crushed foot, with a bone protruding from her wound.
Meanwhile, Flores hadn’t packed any emergency rations. Although they could shelter within the wreckage, they had barely enough food and biscuits for a single meal.
A massive search was soon launched, with planes scouring thousands of hectares for the wrecked plane. But although the pair frantically waved and screamed at the passing planes, they were hidden by the trees and snow.
‘May Day. May Day. This is Howard N5886. We are alive. We hear you west … In the name of God, please come back!’ Klaben cried into the radio. It was hopeless. Their signal was too weak.
Three days after the crash the temperature was -45 C, and the Whitehorse Daily Star ran the headline: Little hope for missing plane. After two weeks of flyovers, the search was ended. But against all odds, the pair were still alive.
While Klaben read and meditated, Flores worked tirelessly, gathering wood for fires, melting snow, unsuccessfully setting snares and fashioning snow shoes from tree bark.
Though they even ate their toothpaste, their meagre rations ran out entirely after 15 days. Although Klaben later noted sadly, ‘I was still almost as fat as the day we crashed.’
On the upside, she was thrilled as her skin became clear, and her nails grew long and firm. Meanwhile, Flores relentlessly tried to convert Klaben to Mormonism, even claiming they’d crashed because she’d rejected Christ. This could be irritating, and yet Klaben was grateful for Flores’ loyalty, even nicknaming him Daddy-o.
After 47 days, the pair were considered by the outside world to be long dead.
By now Klaben had gangrene and frostbite in her shattered foot, and both were growing weak. But Flores never gave up. Hearing the faint sound of engines, he piled Klaben and their supplies onto a piece of wreckage and towed them miles through the snow.
Finding a clearing, he built a new shelter from branches. Then he trekked to a frozen pond and stamped a giant S.O.S. onto the snow, with an arrow pointing to the clearing.
Then, for the first time, Flores left Klaben alone as he set off to find the source of the engines. Petrified of the darkness and wild animals, she tended her small fire all night.
The next evening, on 24 March 1963, bush pilot Chuck Hamilton, 33, was flying over the forest when he saw the S.O.S. on the pond. Curious, he followed the arrow.
Klaben heard the plane coming and immediately threw green pine onto her fire, to send black smoke billowing into the air. But ironically, she was too successful. The smoke was so thick that although she screamed and waved, Hamilton could see nothing below him.
Puzzled, Hamilton swung the plane around for a second look. That’s when he spotted Flores beside a creek. He was frantically waving a coffee tin and flashing sunlight using Klaben’s pocket mirror.
Assuming the man was a trapper in trouble, Hamilton headed straight to the nearest small runway, located at a trappers’ cabin 10km away. It had been the faint sound of these trappers’ chainsaws which had triggered Flores’ decision to move camps.
Hamilton told the trappers there was a man in the woods who needed help. As they set off on foot with dogs to find him, Hamilton flew back to check on the mysterious smoke.
By now it had cleared – and he could see a shabby tent and a large piece of metal. Marked on it was a plane number: N5886.
Hamilton was stunned. A million pound search had failed – yet 48 days later, it seemed he’d discovered the survivors from the missing plane.
‘I think I found the lost people!’ Hamilton radioed to base. Then, with darkness falling, he was forced to return home. Soon the news came that the trappers had found Flores and given him shelter. It was wonderful news.
But Hamilton couldn’t sleep, haunted by the thought of Klaben alone in her flimsy tent.
‘What if she’s dead when I get there?’ he fretted to his wife. He was up and in his plane before dawn, and managed to land on a frozen lake and hiked the last 3km to Klaben’s camp.
When he reached the clearing. Klaben was in the makeshift tent, wrapped in layers of trousers and jumpers. Beaming, she flung open her arms to wrap round his neck. ‘Come here, I’ll give you a big kiss!’ she wept, crying, ‘thank God!’
Then she took out her cosmetics and carefully styled her hair and makeup, before handing Hamilton her a camera and asking him, ‘take my picture.’
She had been saved. But when Hamilton said he’d carry her to the plane, Klaben balked.
‘I was horrified. How could he carry me? I thought I still weighed 140 pounds,’ she wrote later.
‘If I can carry a moose out of the woods, I can carry you,’ the burly hunter replied simply.
First she packed her make-up. Then they left, collecting Flores before flying to hospital. The press were already waiting on the runway when they landed.
‘Nobody could believe they were still alive,’ reporter Bob Hill later remembered. ‘They were really quite a strange-looking pair. He had 50 days’ of beard growth and got off the plane with his belt tightened around his waist. She looked like a young socialite — with cardigans wrapped around her feet.’
Flores had lost 51lb. Exhausted by their ordeal, he was emaciated, haggard and untalkative. But Klaben was simply overjoyed to learn she’d lost 45lb. And what was more, she realised: ‘Hey, I’m a celebrity!’
‘I could hardly believe my eyes or the scales when they put me on it… It said I weighed 100 pounds. 100 pounds! Imagine me weighing 100 pounds!”
She posed happily for photos and declared to reporters, ‘I suggest this for everyone on a diet.’
Hours later, a savage storm hit the forest. It wiped out Flores’ SOS, and medics declared that Klaben would have died if she’d stayed in the woods one more night.
Although she needed several toes amputated and was left with a crooked arm, both made a full recovery. Flores gratefully returned to his wife and children, and although banned from flying for several years, he returned to the skies in 1966.
Klaben appeared on television and wrote a 1964 memoir, Hey, I’m Alive – later turned into a TV film. She and Flores even returned to the crash site during the filming.
‘Most people expect they would not be able to cope with a crisis, and it was a great experience to find out that I could,’ she mused. But it wouldn’t have been possible without the bravery and faith of Flores.
When Tony and Colin arrived in San Francisco in 1965, they stayed briefly with Klaben’s sister and her flatmates – and they met Flores’ wife and children, who called in to visit.
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