A 50 Year Old Tale of Survival

50yrstoryThis post comes to us from Edmonton Journal and recounts the tale of a man and woman that crash a bush plane in a bad storm and fortunately both survive until rescue.

Bob Hill was in Whitehorse to report on a minerals conference half a century ago when he got wind of the greatest news story of his career.

Forty-nine days after their small plane had crashed into a remote mountainside in northeastern British Columbia, a man and woman had been found clinging to life.

Given up for lost, Helen Klaben and Ralph Flores had endured bitterly cold temperatures without survival gear, drinking melted snow, with little more than toothpaste to eat.

“Nobody could believe they were still alive,” says Hill, 81, a scrapbook brimming with newspaper clippings at his fingertips.

Late in the day on March 24, 1963, a bush pilot delivering supplies to an outfitters’ wilderness camp spotted Flores as he walked beside a creek bed in a search for help. Flores, who had lost 51 pounds since his single-engine plane barrelled nose-first into waist-deep snow, waved a coffee tin to attract the pilot’s attention.

News of the shocking discovery spread quickly in Whitehorse, roughly 480 kilometres from the crash site near the Yukon-British Columbia border.

With darkness approaching, the pilot turned back to the nearest airport at Watson Lake, Yukon, making plans to retrieve the survivors the following morning.

Hill was the Edmonton Journal’s roving northern correspondent at the time. Carrying his portable Olivetti typewriter and two cameras, one black and white and one that produced colour transparencies, he set out to find a ride to Watson Lake, 425 kilometres to the southwest along the Alaska Highway.

There were no buses or truckers to hitch with, so he hired a taxi — only to ditch the disappointed driver after receiving a last-minute invitation to ride along with a newsman from the CBC.

Following an all-night drive on the icy highway, Hill arrived at Watson Lake early the next morning and was on the tarmac that afternoon when the haggard survivors arrived.

His dramatic photographs were published by newspapers and magazines across Canada and the United States.

“They were really quite a strange-looking pair,” Hill recalls 50 years later, seated on the couch in his condominium in Edmonton, scrapbook clutched in his hands. “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.”

“The ordeal is over. Ralph Flores, 41, and Helen Klaben, 21, are resting today in Whitehorse General Hospital, 300 miles from a nightmare world of cold, hunger and pain that was their home for 50 horrendous days.”

From Bob Hill’s story in the Edmonton Journal on March 26, 1963

Helen Klaben being carried across the tarmac at the Watson Lake Airport

An electrician who had been working in Fairbanks, Alaska, Ralph Flores was between jobs in the winter of 1963 when he decided to fly his vintage 1941 Howard airplane to San Bruno, Calif., to visit his wife and six children.

Several days before his departure, Flores placed an ad on a local radio station seeking a passenger to accompany him on the four- to five-day trip.

Helen Klaben, a blue-eyed sprite from Brooklyn on a protracted journey around the world, responded. Having moved across the continent six months earlier, Klaben had bluffed her way into a position as a draftsman with the federal bureau of land management, plotting mineral rights and the right-of-way for the Alaska pipeline. Poised for a new adventure, she agreed to pay Flores $70 to fly her to San Francisco, where she planned to set sail for Hong Kong.

 

Climbing aboard Flores’ plane on Feb. 1, the two set out from Fairbanks with plans to follow the Alaska Highway through the Yukon and British Columbia.

After an uneventful 800-kilometre leg to Whitehorse, they were waylaid by a winter storm for two days, and it was -35 C and still snowing when they took off for Fort St. John, B.C., at 11:15 a.m. on Feb. 4.

“This doesn’t faze me,” Flores said at the airport, where other pilots cautioned him. “We are used to this in Alaska.”

A pilot for 10 years who had flown in the Arctic before, Flores expected to complete the 1,185-kilometre trip in about 3-1/2 hours.

Flying in fog and snow, he lost track of the highway and was unable to navigate by instruments, and was 130 kilometres off course when his right wing clipped the top of a tall spruce at 3:30 p.m. The plane plunged to the ground 850 metres up a 1,200-metre mountain. The impact knocked both pilot and passenger unconscious.

When Klaben came to a half-hour later it was -42 C. Her left arm was broken and her right foot was crushed and trapped in the wreckage. Her screams awakened Flores, who had five broken ribs, a fractured jaw, a broken facial bone and blood pouring from his face.

Clambering through the shattered front window, the pilot made his way around to Klaben’s door and helped free her from the crumpled aircraft.

Within an hour of the crash, as word went out that the pair had failed to reach their destination, the Royal Canadian Air Force’s search and rescue squadron in Edmonton was dispatched to find them.

For four weeks and three days, Flores and Klaben stayed with the downed plane, huddling together for warmth and sleeping in its broken fuselage, bundled in extra sweaters and slacks from her baggage.

For the first four days they lived on four tins of sardines, two tins of tuna, two tins of fruit salad and a box of crackers. After that, there was no food left.

Flores tried to snare rabbits or kill them with a slingshot fashioned out of tubing from one of the plane’s tires. He had no luck. They used motor oil to make fires with dead branches, but the mountainside was so thickly forested the smoke never penetrated the canopy of trees above them.

Search planes flew overhead almost daily without seeing them.

To pass the time, they recited poetry by Robert W. Service and read The Bible and The Book of Mormon. A devout Mormon, Flores tried to convert Klaben, a brassy young Jewish woman, hounding her so thoroughly that she eventually abandoned attempts to read Thoreau’s Walden Pond and Plato’s Republic, which she had brought along for the ride.

 



After a little more than a month, Flores and Klaben moved further down the mountain in hope they would be more easily seen. That move was followed by another on March 14 — to a knoll three or four kilometres away, where Flores had constructed a lean-to out of tree boughs and canvas from the plane.

To haul their gear, he turned a piece of the wing’s fabric into a makeshift toboggan.

Nine days after the search was officially called off, Chuck Hamilton, co-owner of B.C.-Yukon Air Services Ltd., was on his way to deliver supplies to Skook Davidson’s hunting lodge on Terminus Mountain when a plume of smoke caught his eye late in the afternoon. It was March 24.

Believing the smoke came from a campfire started by trappers, Hamilton continued with the delivery, but decided to take a closer look during his return flight to the airport at Watson Lake.

Flying overhead in his two-seat Piper Super Cub, Hamilton saw the reflection from the coffee tin Flores held in one hand, then spotted a large SOS he had stomped in the snow with an arrow pointing to a snowshoe trail up the mountainside. Following it, Hamilton found the lean-to where Klaben was staying, the source of smoke he had noticed a few hours earlier.

“I remember the shock I felt when I ran across them after all of the searching that had gone on,” says Hamilton, now 81 and living in Victoria, B.C., where he has a piece of Flores’ plane stored in his basement as a souvenir. “Search and rescue teams had exhausted all of their time and money looking for them.

“They were pretty much forgotten by then.”

With little daylight remaining, Hamilton flew back to the wilderness lodge and asked the outfitters to set out with a dogsled team to fetch Flores. Desperate to be rescued, the pilot had left the lean-to in hope of flagging down a motorist on the Alaska Highway. He didn’t realize it was 80 kilometres away.

After flying back to Watson Lake and alerting authorities that evening, Hamilton returned to the scene on the morning of March 25, landing his plane at a nearby lake and hiking five kilometres through the snow to rescue Klaben.

“I am so glad to know you,” she said upon his arrival. “I’d like to kiss you, but I can’t walk.”

Hamilton, six-foot-two and 200 pounds, then hoisted Klaben, badly hobbled by her crushed foot and gangrene, onto his back. For three hours, he carried her, falling again and again.

“The snow was so deep my snowshoes kept getting caught underneath,” Hamilton recalls. “I worried each time I fell. I didn’t want to hurt her.”

At the same time, a separate search team found Flores, who had been rescued by the hunters and camped with them in the wilderness the night before. Both groups then met back at the hunting lodge, and after a meal of thin moose steaks and pieces of hard tack, the survivors were flown to the airport at Watson Lake.

“It was 35 degrees (Fahrenheit) the day I carried Helen Klaben out,” says Hamilton, who later appeared on the television game show What’s My Line. “The next day the temperature plummeted to 40 below. That would have been the end of them.”

 

Physicians at the time said Flores, who was vomiting up stomach bile, might have had four days left to live. Klaben, they said, may have survived one more week.

“They were brought out Monday by piggyback, dog-drawn toboggan and airplane from near the mountainside spot where their single-engine plane crashed in fog and snow on Feb. 4. The San Bruno, Calif., electrical worker, and self-styled adventuress from Brooklyn have written an indelible chapter in the annals of human endurance and fortitude.”

From Bob Hill’s story on March 26, 1963

Ralph Flores’ plane after the 1963 crash

Covering stories from the heart of Alberta to the Arctic Circle, Bob Hill once spent Christmas and New Year’s chronicling how Inuits celebrated the holidays at Cambridge Bay.

Appointed the Journal’s northern reporter in 1962, he travelled vast distances to spin spectacular yarns, from Baffin Island to the length of the Mackenzie River to Great Slave Lake — where he once became icebound for a week in June.

“I had a great time and a great opportunity to travel around the north country,” says Hill. “When people asked, ‘Where is Hill?’ the managing editor used to point at a map of northern Canada and say, ‘Somewhere up there.’”

Growing up in Moose Jaw, Hill never fancied a career as an ink-stained wretch. Before landing a position as a newspaperman, he worked the oilfields in Saskatchewan and buggered up the books of an Edmonton accounting firm.

“I couldn’t even balance my own bank account,” he says.

After hiring on with the Journal in 1960, he went on to become Canada’s northernmost reporter, covering what the newspaper promoted as the world’s largest beat.

“The publisher once credited me with doubling our circulation — from two to four — in Tuktoyaktuk,” Hill says.

Later in his career, Hill served as Commonwealth correspondent for Southam Newspapers, working out of London for three and a half years. Once, he was invited to a garden party at Buckingham Palace thrown by the Queen.

“I’d covered her during a visit to City Hall in Edmonton,” he deadpans. “When I went to the garden party, she acted like she didn’t recognize me.”

Hill concluded his career with postings at Southam bureaus in Ottawa and Quebec City, and then returned to Edmonton as associate editor of the Journal in 1972 during the Watergate scandal.

Retired long ago, he clearly remembers the day Frank Flores and Helen Klaben arrived in Watson Lake a half-century ago, bedraggled and black from smoke and grime.

The story he wrote won a National Newspaper Award — among the highest honours bestowed on a Canadian journalist — and his dramatic pictures were printed in newspapers across the land, and in the pages of Life magazine.

“I am surprised any of them turned out half decently,” says Hill, who placed his film on a commercial flight from Whitehorse to Edmonton on March 25 so the pictures could be used in the newspaper the next day. “I was not a very good photographer.”

The afternoon Flores and Klaben were rescued, Hill flew with them to Whitehorse on a Canadian Pacific Western flight. The airline made an unscheduled stop in Watson Lake that day so the survivors could quickly receive emergency medical care.

 

Aboard the plane, Klaben, who would have all of the toes amputated on her right foot in the next few days, was a jubilant chatterbox.

“Next time I go camping,” she said at one point. “I’ll take supplies.”

“When Helen Klaben was assisted onto the bed at the Watson Lake first aid station, a woman looked at Helen’s clumsy foot dressings and remarked, “The poor girl.” Replied the tousle-haired 21-year-old who talks and looks a bit like Judy Holliday: “Poor? I’m the richest girl in the world. I’m alive.”

From Bob Hill’s story on March 26, 1963

The team that found Frank Flores’ crashed plane in the fall of 1998.

On the eve of the 50th anniversary of her dramatic rescue, Helen Klaben is talking about writing a sequel to the 1964 book she had published by McGraw-Hill, Hey, I’m Alive. Her working title five decades later: Hey, I’m Still Alive.

At 71, she is a grandmother now and lives in Palo Alto, Calif., and is a lifetime removed from events that cast her in the spotlight as a survivor in one of the greatest accounts of endurance in Canada’s hostile north.

In the wake of her rescue, she was featured in Life and Look magazines and Good Housekeeping and The Saturday Evening Post, and her book was turned into a made-for-TV movie that starred Ed Asner as the downed pilot and Sally Struthers as his plucky young passenger.

“Has it already been 50 years?” she says, then begins to recount her story.

She remembers realizing the plane was in trouble and fearing that it was going to crash — then waking up in freezing cold and in tremendous pain.

“Ralph was slumped over in the cockpit,” she says. “I shook him and hoped he was alive. My seatbelt held but his didn’t. He was almost impaled on the throttle. He nearly pierced his belly with it.”

It was only after they crashed, she says, that she realized Flores had not packed survival gear.

“I remember asking Ralph, and him saying, ‘Well, we don’t have any. I wasn’t planning on a crash.’”

At times, as days turned into weeks, she lost faith.

“I was ready to die,” she says. “I said, ‘I can’t handle this suffering.’ I asked God why He was prolonging this. I couldn’t move because of my foot. It was swollen and gangrenous and so terribly painful.”

She drew strength from thinking about Holocaust victims.

“I looked at what happened to me from that point of view, and I think it helped me get through,” she says. “I thought of the people who died in concentration camps, and then said, ‘How bad can this be?

“I am cold and hungry but nobody is torturing me.’”

She worried about her family, knowing they must have been agonizing over her disappearance.

“Very often, people survive for somebody, and for me it was my mother,” she says. “I didn’t want to die without her knowing. I was eager to tell her I was alive.”

Arriving at Watson Lake, Klaben was stunned to be greeted by a phalanx of reporters.

She rose to the occasion — quickly tossing out one-liners and sharing details of her life.

 

“I have no boyfriend at home,” she said. “If I did, I wouldn’t be here.”

In the years following the crash, she met with Flores a handful of times, and remains in contact with his family. The pilot died in 1997 of heart failure.

Klaben sparred with Flores over religion and says he was not always easy to get along with. But she remains grateful to him.

“He was very paternal and protective of me, high energy and innovative, and did everything he could to try to get us rescued,” she says. “He was sort of the ideal person to crash with.

“I have to be thankful to Ralph. He saved my life.”

“Ralph Flores became a new man here Wednesday. He was transformed with a shave (his first in 51 days), a haircut, dental work, and new clothes. He was no longer the bedraggled, bushy-faced survivor of a wilderness plane crash who had to be assisted into White Horse General Hospital on Monday. Instead he was a well-groomed electrical mechanic worrying about the new scars on his face and patiently waiting the arrival of his wife from far-off San Bruno, Calif.”

From Bob Hill’s story on March 28, 1963

Frank Flores stands in front of the recovered fuselage of the plane his father crashed in 1963

Bob Cameron was 17 and taking flying lessons when he saw Frank Flores’ plane parked in a hangar at the Whitehorse Airport, a day before the pilot left on his ill-fated trip. Thirty-five years after the crash, he helped the Flores family find the wreckage a few kilometres from Airplane Lake in the Rocky Mountain Trench.

Working for Trans North Helicopters, Cameron and members of the Flores family and pilot Chris Guichon, who was later killed in a crash of his own, flew grids over the forest in northern B.C. before barely glimpsing the plane through the thick trees at the end of their second day of searching.

After camping overnight in the helicopter high atop a cliff, the group set out on foot the following morning and found the crash site late that day.

“It was a very emotional moment,” says Cameron, who recently had a book published about the history of aviation in the Yukon. “It was a miracle they had survived the impact. The nose of the plane was driven into the ground like a spear.”

Cameron still remembers hearing the news bulletin on the radio the night it was announced that Flores and Klaben had been found, 49 days after the crash.

“I was home babysitting my younger brother, and when my parents got home late that night I rushed to the door to tell them,”Cameron says. “My dad said, ‘Don’t be ridiculous.’

“None of us thought there was any way anyone could have survived. It had been minus 40 and below for weeks.

“Fifty years later, I am still astounded.”

Frank Flores has pieces of his father’s broken fuselage and the 450-horsepower engine from his plane in a hangar beside his home in Ozark, Missouri. A pilot for American Airlines, he is slowly and painstakingly restoring the aircraft.

A year after their father died, Frank and his brother, Ralph Jr., and sister, Lisa, hired a helicopter and flew grids over the forest until they spotted the downed plane, still sitting on the mountainside where it had crashed in 1963.

 

“It was an odd feeling I wasn’t prepared for,” says Frank Flores, who was five years old when his father was lost in the wilderness.

His father’s tool box was still there, and so too were the empty tins of sardines and tuna fish the survivors ate in the immediate days following the crash. So was the can of motor oil his father had used to melt snow to create drinking water. High in a tree, they found an SOS sign Ralph Flores had tied there 35 years earlier.

“My dad was a very quiet man,” Frank Flores says. “We would work on airplanes together side by side, and every once in a while he would come up with a story about what happened up there.

“You could work with him and he wouldn’t say but a few sentences the entire day.”

Frank Flores says his family never lost hope that Ralph was alive, and wrote a letter to John F. Kennedy begging for help after the search was initially called off. It was briefly extended with help from the president, who later wrote the family — “It’s nice to know miracles happen” — after the rescue.

Back home, Ralph Flores resumed working as an electrician and eventually ran his own gas station. Years later, he was designated a hero by Congress at the suggestion of Tom Lantos, a senator from California.

“Growing up as kids, my brothers and I would complain to him sometimes that we were hungry,” Frank Flores says. “ He’d say, ‘You know, it’s amazing how much longer you can sustain yourself than you think.’”

As he laid in the hospital a month before he died, Ralph Flores thought back to the crash and turned to his wife, Teresa.

“He told her, ‘Don’t ever forget Helen,’” Frank Flores says.

Standing on the mountainside in 1998, looking at his father’s ruined plane, Frank Flores decided to take it home with him.

He had pieces of the fuselage and engine hauled out by helicopter and dropped beside the Alaska Highway near Liard River, approximately 120 kilometres away. He then hired a trucking company to bring the wreckage to Edmonton, where he picked it up himself in a rental truck and carted it all the way back to Missouri, where he works on it in his spare time.

His dream is to restore it to running condition, then complete his father’s last flight from Whitehorse to Fort St. John.

“It’s on my bucket list,” he says. “I told my wife I will spend my last dime doing it.”

Mklinkenberg@edmontonjournal.com

Twitter: martykej

© Copyright (c) The Edmonton Journal
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About Chad

Chad is a Native son of Medicine Lodge, Kansas. A founder of MasterWoodsman.com, he spends most of his time in "no man's land," NWOK wilderness!

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2 Responses to A 50 Year Old Tale of Survival

  1. laurel@auntphilstrunk.com'
    Laurel Bill March 10, 2015 at 9:18 pm #

    This is an awesome account of human nature and survival and very well told. Thank you. I do have a question: Where might I locate permission to use the photograph of the wrecked plane? I am the author of the Aunt Phil’s Trunk Alaska history series and currently am writing the fifth book in the series from 1959 to 1984. I have highlights of top news items for each year, and this story was chosen as the top Associated Press story in Alaska for 1963. Any help you can provide would be much appreciated.

  2. lanasaunders@hotmail.com'
    Anonymous May 13, 2016 at 11:58 am #

    I just reread the book and wonder if Helen is still Alive. I would like to communicate with her..

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