Couple trapped in snow leave diary of peaceful death

May 11, 1991|By John Johnston | John Johnston,Los Angeles Times

A 68-year-old woman, trapped with her husband in a snowbound automobile in California's Sierra Nevada mountains for more than two weeks, wrote a note to her children shortly before she died:

"Your father passed away," wrote Nada Jean Chaney. "It was very peaceful. His last words were,'Thank the Lord.' "

The bodies of the woman and her 75-year-old husband, Kenneth -- who became stranded in a March snowstorm when they took a wrong turn while driving from Fresno to their home in Mariposa -- were found 10 days ago by a U.S. Forest Service crew.

Authorities investigating the high-mountain tragedy discovered a detailed journal written on scraps of paper by the Chaneys during their weeks of isolation, apparently as they slowly starved and froze. It contains poems, reflections, funeral instructions and an account of the passing days, during which a series of snowstorms pounded the 6,700-foot-high mountain road where they were stranded, piling up drifts as much as 10 feet deep.

Most of all, according to Jayne Peterson, a daughter who lives in Palmdale, Calif., the writings show not only a strong religious faith but a deep bond between the husband and wife that enabled them to face the fact that they might not survive.

"They didn't have a fear of death," Ms. Peterson said.

She said her parents bought a house in Mariposa, in the foothills of the Sierras, in January. Madera County sheriff's officials said the couple was reported missing Feb. 27, the day they set out for home after a business trip to Fresno.

"They took a way they had never been before," Ms. Peterson said."They missed the turn and went into the high elevations and got stuck in the snow."

She said there were signs that her parents had tried to turn the car around on the two-lane, paved Forest Service road but had failed. As the snow began falling heavily, they bundled up in a blanket and apparently tried to wait out the foul weather.

Kenneth Judd, a U.S. Forest Service fire captain, discovered the bodies May 1.

He was part of a four-man crew on a Snow Cat that was measuring the depth of the snow when the team came upon the 1980 Thunderbird. It was turned sideways in the road, facing north. Captain Judd said he got out, dusted snow off the windshield and saw the bodies seated in the front seat.

There were plastic food containers in the car, he said, and there were indications that the couple had gotten out of the car more than once, but nothing to show they had tried to hike out. The nearest town, a small community called North Fork, was 54 miles away.

They apparently tried to stay warm with the blanket and by using the car heater. The car was out of gas when it was found, Captain Judd said, and there was a spot behind the tailpipe where snow had been melted away, indicating the engine had been running.

As the time passed, the Chaneys began keeping their journal, HTC which has now been turned over to their children. One official called it "more or less a daily account of their predicament."

Ms. Peterson said there was no indication of growing desperation in the writing by either the husband or the wife. In fact, they appeared to draw some strength from their plight.

"No matter what the outcome of this situation, we would not have missed this experience for anything," wrote Nada Jean Chaney.

According to Ms. Peterson, they used their situation to grow closer to each other.

Kenneth Chaney died first, after 18 days, Ms. Peterson said.

His wife wrote in her journal to her children that his passing was so peaceful she was not even aware of it when it came. It was not known when his wife died, but she wrote in the journal that she expected to be with him soon, Ms. Peterson said.

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