By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
March 26, 2008
Charlie Hamilton went down to the basement to fetch a piece of airplane.
He returned with a battered bit of fibreglass. He blew dust off before holding it aloft. It stretched as long as his own 6-foot-2 wingspan.
The scrap carried on it the designation “N58856.”
It came with a story.
Mr. Hamilton, 77, once owned half of the B.C.-Yukon Air Service, for which he worked as a bush pilot based out of Watson Lake near the border between the province and the territory. “We flew miners and prospectors in the summer, the odd trapper in winter,” he said.
Back in the winter of ‘63, he was piloting a two-seat Piper PA-18, known as a Super Cub, on a flight to the Diamond J ranch in the Kechika River Valley. The spread was owned by John Ogilvie Davidson, a famed guide and mountain man known as Skook, a shortened form of the Chinook word skookum, meaning strong.
You had to be strong to survive in such isolated country, where only a handful of humans lived in an expanse of rivers and mountains.
While flying over a meadow, Mr. Hamilton could make out the letters SOS stamped into the snow. He then spotted a woman in a makeshift tent. He waggled the plane's wings to indicate he would return.
He flew on 15 kilometres to a cabin where he alerted two aboriginal trappers. They returned on foot to the crash site midway up a mountain.
It was a sunny day and unseasonably warm with the temperature hovering around freezing.
They found two people in rough condition. Ralph Flores, a 42-year-old pilot from California, had a broken jaw and a broken rib. Helen Klaben, his 21-year-old passenger from Brooklyn, had a broken arm and a broken right foot. Both were strikingly thin. He had a scraggly, unkempt beard.
Lost in a snowstorm and flying low to get bearings, Mr. Flores had crashed into the side of the mountain. Both were knocked unconscious by the impact. Miss Klaben awoke first, after about 30 minutes. The pilot came to after eight hours. They took stock of their precarious circumstance.
The temperature outside was 45 degrees below zero.
The only tools on board were a chisel and a hammer.
Their food supply consisted of two tins of sardines, two cans of fruit, one box of crackers. They also had two tubes of toothpaste.
In the coming days, they would count more than 40 aircraft flying near the crash site. All missed them because of their position up the mountain. Some planes flying along the valley were even lower than their own elevation.
Days passed. Then a week. The temperature remained below freezing.
The pilot was a convert to Mormonism. He took the crash as a test of faith. He read aloud from the Bible, tried to persuade his Jewish passenger to convert.
One week became two.
A second week turned into a third week.
They tried snaring rabbits without success.
Their last meal was toothpaste. Their diet consisted of melted snow.
“Water for breakfast, water for lunch and water for supper,” Miss Klaben said.
A fourth week passed.
Then a fifth. And a sixth.
“I didn't mind dying,” she said. “I was eager to die because of the pain. The hunger and the sleep deprivation was terrible. But I didn't want to die with my mother not knowing where I was.”
The pilot's faith never wavered.
He used a chunk of the fuselage as a toboggan and he fashioned homemade snowshoes from bark and branches, stamping out a three-letter distress signal.
Mr. Hamilton spotted this from the air 49 days after the crash.
When he arrived, Miss Klaben grabbed him to give him a kiss. “I was jumping up and down even though I had a gangrenous foot,” she said. She would lose all the toes on her right foot.
Mr. Hamilton carried her from the crash site on his back. Plump by her own description, the “crash diet” left her weighing less than 45 kilograms. Mr. Hamilton was accustomed to toting that much moose meat when hunting.
Still, it was a tough slog.
“The snow was three- to five-feet deep,” he recalled. “I must have fallen 40 or 50 times. I had to fall on my face. I couldn't fall on her.”
After each stumble, he would tramp the snow to give himself a footing, before again placing Miss Klaben on his back to continue the downhill trek.
Word of the rescue was front-page news around the world.
A photograph of Miss Klaben appeared on the front cover of Life magazine.
Mr. Hamilton and his wife, Marion, were flown to New York, where they visited Miss Klaben in hospital before appearing on Garry Moore's I've Got a Secret television show. The panelists quickly guessed the bush pilot's identity, as it was all people talked about.
Miss Klaben's grateful mother presented her rescuer with an engraved watch.
Mr. Hamilton had always wanted to fly. As a boy, he carved Spitfire models from pine and yellow cedar. But he eventually sold his interest in the airline, becoming a salmon fisherman on the west coast of Vancouver Island. He retired to Esquimalt some years ago. He has not seen the woman he rescued since visiting her in a Manhattan hospital.
The two lost touch over the years. Neither knew where the other lived.
Until yesterday, that is, which was the 45th anniversary of their unlikely meeting.
The 21-year-old “girl survivor” is now 66 and living in California under her married name.
Helen Klaben Kahn finished her education at Columbia University before becoming a book editor. She married a securities analyst, raised two sons (one an inventor, the other a doctor), and wrote a book about her ordeal titled, Hey, I'm Alive. This was turned into a made-for-TV movie with Ed Asner as the pilot and Sally Struthers as the passenger.
The author is considering a sequel to be titled, Hey, I'm Still Alive.
She makes presentations to school children and community groups about surviving in subzero temperatures without food. “I put my toes across the threshold of death and came back to tell the story,” she said.
She and Mr. Flores maintained a father-daughter relationship until his death a decade ago. After his passing, three of his children made a pilgrimage to the crash site in northern British Columbia between Aeroplane Lake and the confluence of the Gataga and Kechika Rivers.
They later had the wreck winched off the mountainside. It is now in a Missouri warehouse awaiting restoration.
On the telephone, the rescued had a request to be delivered to her rescuer. “I'm so appreciative. I love Chuck Hamilton,” she said. “Give him a hug and a kiss from me.”
Mr. Hamilton told me he preferred more traditional greetings. We shook hands.
He regrets having lost the engraved watch while moose hunting. But he still has a scrap from an airplane once used as a toboggan by desperate people whose time had not yet come.
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