Winter Night On Mendeltna Hill: Saving Diann Hursh

Heading North Toward Glennallen On The Glenn Highway. (Photo, Country Journal) Into The Snow On Mendeltna Hill Diann Hursh li...

Heading North Toward Glennallen On The Glenn Highway. (Photo, Country Journal)

Into The Snow On Mendeltna Hill

Diann Hursh lived in Valdez, more than 100 miles south of Glennallen. As she pointed out one February, the drive over the Glenn Highway between Anchorage and Glennallen could be a bad one all year long, but it was worse in winter.  "A good portion of travel is during the night, as wintertime is mostly darkness," she commented. "And to travel to Anchorage from Valdez for shopping or medical specialists is 6 hours of driving."

Though often difficult, the trip could be extremely dangerous.  It was mountainous terrain, plagued by subzero temperatures, steep embankments, falling rocks, drifting snow and poor visibility.

Taking Mom Back Home
One late January night Diann Hursh was returning to Valdez from Anchorage with her 86-year old mother in a rental car. She was headed up the Glenn Highway. At Glennallen, she would take a right on the Richardson to her home in Valdez.

Diann’s mother had been undergoing tests at a hospital in Anchorage. The mother and daughter had taken a plane to Anchorage. But they needed to rent a car coming back, because planes weren't flying due to winds that had been pounding the Chugach Range and the little city of Valdez for two days.

Halfway through what had turned out be a long and stressful ride, they were about 150 miles from Anchorage. They still had 155 miles to go before reaching home. The often impassable, wind-blown snowy heights of Thompson Pass lay before them, and negotiating Thompson Pass was even more daunting than the Glenn. It was going to be a long night. 

"Mom was all of 105 lbs. and bedridden, due to a recent fall," said Diann. "She was wearing snow pants, plus a down jacket." Her mother's arm was in a cast. On top of that, she couldn't sit up and was making the trip lying in the back seat of the car. 

Overturned truck in the Copper Valley, October 1991. (Journal file photo)

Strong Winds At Mendeltna Creek
The tortuous road had been winding its way along the Matanuska River.  Diann drove up Long Lake Hill, past Sheep Mountain Lodge, and by Eureka Summit. Now, as Glennallen approached, the Glenn began to straighten out and Diann felt more confident as they passed the old Athabascan river settlement of Mendeltna. It was 10:30 pm that winter night. There was a bright, silver moon.

Dark night on the Glenn. (Photo, Country Journal)
Although they were still far from Valdez, there were strong winds here, too. Diann noticed the winds were blowing snow across the road. The car was rocking.

"We came to a gentle hill where the wind blows more severely," said Diann. She tried to correct the car.

That was a mistake. "Add all-weather tires with 40,000 miles on them, plus my tapping the brakes, to keep the speed within 55 to 60 mph… and we were instantly reeling out of control and turned sideways."

The rear of the vehicle spun to the front, and the car rolled off the shoulder. It ended upside down, far off the road in the snow, with the hood partially crushed in.

Winter moon. (Photo, Neil Hannan)
Upside Down At 20 Below
Even in the summertime, Mendeltna Creek was pretty much out in the middle of nowhere. But in the winter, especially this late at night, it was far more isolated. It was nearing midnight. A passing motorist might not come along for hours.

Diann tried to think. Her mother was lying up against the front seats, on her belly, completely silent. Diann herself was still strapped in.  "As I sat hanging in the air, I fumbled for the hazard lights," said Diann. She asked, "Mother, how are you?" There was no response.

The outdoor temperature was between -16 and -20 degrees. The winds took the windchill to at least 40 below zero. "I knew we were in serious danger of freezing to death," Diann said. "We didn't have much time."

A strong, forceful woman with a fierce sense of determination, Diann Hursh knew she had to act. "My side of the car was higher than Mom's, and I was able to open the electric window. As I unbuckled my seatbelt and tried to wriggle out, my coat seemed to be pinning me in." Diann fell onto the inside roof of the car. She crawled out of her coat. Leaving it and her mother behind, she began wallowing, in her winter boots, through the knee-deep snow – away from the highway – desperately looking for help in the lonely wilderness. She was headed downhill, into the woods.

The Wrong Way 
As she struggled, she prayed. "I thought, 'Help, dear God, help!' How long before a vehicle would pass by? How much energy did I need to reach the highway and flag down help? How much energy did I have?"

Turning around for a moment, she realized she was going in the wrong direction when she saw the slim moonlit outline of the Glenn Highway behind her. She turned and followed her tracks, passing the car. She began to stagger back toward the road, coatless and disoriented. As she reached the edge of the highway, she struggled to climb the ten foot slope.

Sharon Daniel Arrives
And then Sharon Daniel drove up. It was a  tiring late night drive for Sharon, too.  Sharon ran a company in Glennallen. But Sharon Daniel didn't hesitate. She stopped, and she did what had to be done. As many Copper Valley people do, Sharon was flung that night into the unforeseen role of trying to save somebody else's life. 

Sharon had grown up in the Copper Valley, in a family of rural lodgeowners from Chistochina, a small Native American village just up the road from Glennallen.

There's one thing she knew. In circumstances like this, you do not just drive by. But it wasn’t going to be easy. "Oh no!" Sharon thought to herself, as she leaped out and helped pull Diann out of the snowbank and up onto the road.

Diann Hursh. (Photo, Country Journal)

Others Stop To Help
Sharon called for help on a cell phone  – a handy and brand new technology of the day. And that was when Sharon learned Diann's aged mother was still trapped in the car in the snow. "I put Diann into my car," Sharon remembered decades later. Then Sharon Daniel headed out to the wreck.

In the bitter cold, Sharon had to assess the situation for herself. Other people were beginning to come by and they stopped, too. "We waited for the medics," said Sharon. The passing motorists decided to work together.  The little group stamped a trail through the snow to the vehicle. Relying on a simple first aid class she had taken years before, Sharon began trying to care for Diann Hursh's weakened mother.

"I couldn't see all of her," Sharon recalled. "So I spent a bit of time running my hands over and under her, trying to determine if or how she was hurt. I couldn't get her to talk to me, just moan. So I made a couple of trips from the car to Diann, to ask questions about her mom."

An Alaska State Trooper arrived around 30 minutes after Sharon did. The Trooper got the door open on the far side of the car, and got a blanket on top of Diann’s mother while they waited. “We were afraid to move her mom out of the wrecked car and into a warm car because we didn't know if her mom was badly hurt by the wreck, or just banged up. It was a scary situation," Sharon recalled.

The Rescue Team
They had to wait another 15 minutes in the cold for the ambulance once the Trooper got there. "It seemed like forever – and seemed like just minutes," recalled Sharon Daniel. When the trained rescue team finally did arrive, pulled from their warm beds and scattered homes, they were not "medics" like you'd find in a city. They were just guys from around the Copper Valley.

Sharon Daniel (Photo, LinkedIn)
This small group of trained local volunteers began to assemble out in the darkness, summoned to aid a stranger, miles from their families.

The crowd of people struggling in the snow in the bitter cold with the winter wind swirling around them, out there at Mendeltna, now included the Trooper, Sharon Daniel, Vern Ellwein, Ralph Phillips, Richard Flansburg, Bill Bowler, Dave LeBaron, Roy Becker, Pinky Becker, Rocky Ansell, and Bob Olson.

A Way Of Life
Diann's mother survived. After it was all over, a grateful daughter made it a point to thank every one of her rescuers for coming out into the night, and helping to save her and her mother from near-certain tragedy. Diann had once lived in the Copper Valley before moving to Valdez. She understood.

This was not a unique or unusual situation. Getting in trouble on Alaska's highways was so common as to be almost predictable. And saving others – that's just what the people of the Copper Valley did.  

ABOUT THIS STORY: This is a Copper River Country Journal original story. Diann Hursh was so grateful after she was saved by Sharon Daniel and the Copper River volunteers that she wrote to the print version of the Copper River Country Journal with a thank-you letter. Years later, we got further information in a December 2016 interview from Sharon Daniel. This story is the first chapter of a book about Copper Valley courage, Rescue Me: Life & Death In Rural Alaska.  We are printing it here for Copper Valley people to read and enjoy. The story is the property of the Copper River Country Journal and Red Truck Printing Company of Gakona, Alaska. Copyright © 2020, All rights reserved.


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