Alaska landslide survivor says force of impact threw her around ‘like a piece of weightless popcorn’

FILE – This photo provided by the U.S. Coast Guard shows the aftermath of a landslide in Wrangell, Alaska, Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2023. Authorities recovered the body of Kara Heller, 11, Saturday evening, Nov. 25, from the debris of a landslide in southeast Alaska that tore down a wooded mountainside, smashing into the homes in a remote fishing village Monday night, Nov. 20. The girl is the fourth confirmed killed by the landslide from the Heller family. (U.S. Coast Guard via AP, File)

Wrangell, Alaska (AP) – Christina Florschutz was dressing after stepping out of the shower of her upstairs bathroom when she heard “a horrible noise, a very loud noise.”

Florschutz, who had heard both a tornado and a mudslide before, knew exactly what this noise was — a landslide.

The force of the mountainside slammed into the home she shared with her husband near the southeast Alaska island community of Wrangell, tossing her around “like a piece of weightless popcorn” before she lost consciousness, she told the Wrangell Sentinel and KSTV radio in a recent interview as she still waited to hear the fate of her husband, who remains missing from last week’s disaster.

The Nov. 20 landslide came down into the path of three homes, one unoccupied, after a storm brought heavy rain. She is the only person so far found alive.

Four people have been confirmed killed in the landslide: Timothy and Beth Heller and two of their children, Kara, 11, and Mara, 16. Two other people remain missing: the Hellers’ 12-year-old child, Derek, and Florschutz’s husband, 65-year-old commercial fisherman Otto Florschutz.

Debris has been cleared from the coastal highway, but access is currently limited to people who live on the south side of the slide.

When Christina Florschutz regained consciousness in the rubble, she was trapped between the roof of her house and debris.

“I was hanging kind of head down, at an angle, with my feet up,” she told the local newspaper and radio station in an interview from her hospital bed. “It was fairly uncomfortable.”

She felt around and found a bag of polar fleece from her upstairs sewing room.

“Right then and there, I knew I was going to live,” Florschutz said. “I was going to live. I was meant to live.”

She wrapped herself in the pieces of fleece cloth and waited until morning, not knowing if anyone in town knew about the landslide yet.

After sunrise, Florschutz was able to free herself and make her way to the back corner of the house. That’s when she realized it had slid down mostly intact until it slammed into an old shop, causing the bedroom to separate and continue further downhill. Parts of it were found in the ocean.

As she surveyed the landslide, Florschutz was shocked at how large it was. “Wow, I hope Wrangell is still around,” she thought to herself of the community 11 miles (18 kilometers) up the road.

Florschutz then found a bag of large women’s fleece pajama bottoms, which she buys at thrift stores for sewing projects. She covered herself in those and began walking across the debris field piled high with trees, looking for an edge to exit the rubble.

A group eventually found her and put her in a sled and dragged her across the debris field.

Florschutz spent most of last week recuperating from injuries she suffered at the local hospital but can’t wait to greet the third graders at Evergreen Elementary, where she’s an aide.

She considers the circumstances of her survival to be a miracle and expressed gratitude to the community for their support.

Being in Alaska forces people “to learn to live with others and help each other. It forces you to not try to be an island,” she said.