‘That’s how I lived’: Wrangell landslide victim says sewing materials helped her survive

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Christina Florschutz was the sole survivor recovered after a Nov. 20, 2023 landslide in Wrangell destroyed three homes and left at least four people dead. (Colette Czarnecki/KSTK)

Search and rescue teams in Wrangell recovered the body of 11-year-old Kara Heller over the weekend from the debris of last week’s deadly landslide, as the sole survivor rescued last week shared her story.

After a scent detection K-9 identified the site Saturday evening, Alaska State Troopers say Heller’s body was recovered with the help of an excavator. Next of kin and the State Medical Examiners Office has been notified.

Kara Heller is the fourth landslide victim to be recovered. The bodies of her sister, Mara Heller, and her parents, Timothy and Beth Heller, were recovered earlier this week.

Two people remain missing: Derek Heller, 12, and neighbor Otto Florschutz, 65.

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An overhead view of the fatal Wrangell slide, which closed the Zimovia Highway near Mile 11. (From State of Alaska)

Florschutz’s wife, Christina Florschutz, survived the slide and is recovering in Wrangell’s local hospital. She said she had just taken a shower upstairs in their home when the slide struck.

“And I heard this horrible noise, very loud noise and I recognize it — I’ve heard tornadoes, I’ve heard a mudslide before,” she said, speaking from her hospital bed Thursday. “I knew what was happening, but I didn’t have any warning. I heard the noise. And suddenly I’m like a piece of weightless popcorn being tossed around all over the places, slamming into things and everything.”

When she came to rest, Florschutz found herself under part of the house’s roof, but able to see trees. She was cold and suffering from leg cramps, but when she touched a plastic bag she realized what it contained: pieces of polar fleece she had collected from thrift stores for sewing projects.

“Right then and there, I knew I was going to live,” she said. “I was going to live; I was meant to live. God put that there for me so that I wouldn’t die from hypothermia.”

Florschutz said she was able to use a piece of polar fleece to protect her from the rain. She said that thinking about the third graders she works with as a teacher’s aide helped her survive.

Eventually, she heard thumping on the roof.

“I’m hollering out,” ‘Hey, I’m over here,’ you know? she said. “And bump-bump, bump-bump, bump-bump: I then realize, ‘Oh, it’s one of my dogs sitting up there wagging its tail.’”

She talked to the dog for a while and told it to bark if anyone approached, but by morning the dog was gone.

Eventually, Florschutz was able to wriggle free of the home’s wreckage. She said she used parts of the debris to cross mud, until she was spotted by rescuers.

“They got me to a place where I could walk a little ways and they put me in this toasty warm truck,” she said. “That’s how I lived.”

After she heals from her injuries, Florschutz said, she can’t wait to get back to her students.

On Thursday, Search and Rescue teams proceeded with a reactive search, rather than an active search. That means a scent-detection K-9 remained on standby, but the Alaska Department of Transportation has started work to clear the road. Road crews expect to clear one lane of traffic for use by Wrangell Public Works and emergency personnel in the coming days.

Read a full transcript of Christina Florschutz’s account here, or listen to her full 42-minute interview below:

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