Snow and Avalanche Center 2016 Avalanche News

Birthday trip becomes avalanche rescue

Rockport woman's son, grandson help dig out victims in Norwegian village

Longyearbyen, Norway's music teacher died when an avalanche Dec. 19 hit his house. Maj. James McGovern, son of Rockport's Julianna McGovern, helped did others out of the snow.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016 2:00 am

ROCKPORT, MA — Air Force Col. James McGovern, a defense attache to the U.S. Embassy in Iceland, has seen combat in such places as Bosnia, Baghdad and Kuwait, but on the ground on a birthday vacation with family and friends in the small town of Longyearbyen, Norway, he saw a different kind of action.

“We heard a bit of low rumbles and thought it was snow plows, so we didn’t pay much attention to it,” he said Monday, recalling the events of Dec. 19. The major was in town on Monday on a one-day visit to see his mother, Julianna McGovern, in Rockport before going to a meeting in Washington, D.C.

“I was bored,” McGovern said, “and walked out of the room when one of my friends came upstairs very upset and said there’d been an avalanche.”

He ran downstairs and saw four or five kids in pajamas and snow boots crying in the Base Camp Explorer hotel lobby.

“I ran upstairs, rousted my son, and we grabbed shovels and ran into the cold winter night,” he said.

Out they went into the worst storm to hit the area in 30 years.

Wind gusts from 50 to 80 mph had been slamming the snow into the east side of the mountains where the townspeople could not see its depth. Although 10:30 in the morning, it was December darkness in the Arctic, where the sun sets in the fall and doesn’t rise until March, and it was cold as only a polar night can be — minus 35 degrees, he figures.

“Then the temperature warmed,” McGovern said.

That small rise in temperature caused the snow pack to slide down the mountain, slamming into 10 homes that careened down the mountainside like “bumper cars,” McGovern said.

With a small population of 2,300, a majority of residents are first responders, he said. The residents of Longyearbyen — the world’s northernmost town — are mostly coal miners.

“They were really well organized since the town’s resources are minuscule and the mine released the workers to help,” McGovern said.

“We dug a hole 20- by 20-foot square where debris had come to rest,” he said. “They uncovered two brothers who were cold, but still breathing — a 2-year-old and a 10-year-old.

In an email to his mother, he described the event:

“Last I heard all were accounted for, including one man right up until the end. Absolute Christmas miracle, because at least two houses basically disappeared.

“Very proud of Goosie (McGovern’s son James). He worked his butt off trying to get into the Priority 1 house while I helped dig out the first boy 15m back uphill. Unconscious and cold but decent pulse,” he wrote.

Despite being airlifted for medical attention, the 2-year-old did not survive. The town’s music teacher also died in the avalanche.

Longyearbyen is on the Svalbard archipelago between mainland Norway and the North Pole.

The severity of the storm canceled all flights until two days later when the McGoverns left, escaping an even larger storm that arrived Dec. 29.

On his whirlwind visit with his mother on Monday, the major said that after the Arctic darkness of Norway and Iceland, he found Monday’s sunshine in Rockport to be overwhelming.

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