Today, 20 years have passed since an avalanche fell on the 200-person village of Súðavík in the West Fjords, on January 16, 1995. Fourteen people, including eight children, were killed.
The disaster had a profound impact on every Icelander. I remember hearing about it on the news on the radio before going to school that dreadful morning.
We followed the news horror-struck as the number of dead increased, waiting and hoping that more people would be found alive in their wrecked houses, buried under suffocating snow.
A blizzard raged in the West Fjords and a search and rescue crew had to be sent to the village on a Coast Guard cruiser. When they arrived, they joined locals in their tireless search for survivors, braving the storm, listening for signs of life, sticking poles into the snow.
A girl my age, Elma Dögg Flosadóttir—who was 14 when the avalanche fell—was saved after 15 hours under the snow. She told her story on RÚV’s news magazine Kastljós yesterday evening.
Elma woke up with a start in the night at the sound of an explosion—probably a window that shattered. She tried to get up but couldn’t. Her closet had fallen on top of her, which ended up saving her life, creating a pocket of air.
Everything blacked out. When Elma regained consciousness, she had the corner of her down duvet in her mouth. She could move her head and fingers but otherwise she was trapped. She remembers trying to remove wooden splinters from her mouth.
Elma didn’t realize what had happened; she never imagined that she was buried under an avalanche. She just assumed that the closet had fallen because the weather was so bad and was waiting for someone to free her.
Under usual circumstances, Elma’s brother, who had spent the night at his girlfriends’, would come home in the morning and change into his work clothes before going to work. Elma kept waiting for her brother to come and was getting tired of waiting.
Eventually, she started crying out for her mother, as loudly as she could. The search and rescue workers heard her cries and started poking around with their poles. Elma, whose consciousness was drifting away, imagined an old-fashioned tent with metal poles being taken down.
Finally, they reached her and she could see their flashlight. As they cleared all the snow away, she remembers the icy cold that hit her. The men dragged her on her mattress to the fish processing plant, which had been turned into a help center. At one point, the storm lifted her cover and it was so fierce that it took her breath away.
Once there, a search and rescue worker was assigned with keeping Elma awake. It bothered her because she was so tired. But had she fallen asleep, she would never have regained consciousness. Her physical condition was very poor; her kidneys had stopped working and one of her legs had severe frostbite—she was lucky to escape amputation.
Today, Elma’s physical wounds have healed but mentally, her wounds will never heal, she said on Kastljós. The survivors didn’t receive crisis counseling or any other professional psychological help.
Many chose to return to Súðavík and rebuild their community, including Elma. To this day they seek comfort from each other, discussing their experiences of the tragedy.
Overcoming severe depression which hit her several years after the avalanche, Elma has learned to live with her experience and the guilt of having survived the disaster and her family being the only one whose house was hit where no one died.
All other families lost someone; I remember a couple who lost all three of their children.
It isn’t possible to imagine what it was like being in Súðavík on that day 20 years ago, what it feels like losing everything, watching your friends and neighbors dealing with the death of loved ones, searching frantically for survivors, or the horror of digging up dead bodies.
Since the avalanche in Súðavík—and an equally disastrous one which hit the West Fjords village of Flateyri in October that same year—much has been accomplished in the building of levees to protect inhabited areas from avalanches, and crisis council is now always provided under conditions like these.
I applaud Elma and other Súðavík residents for rebuilding their lives and carrying on, and for sharing their stories with the rest of us. We will never forget that tragic day 20 years ago.
Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir – eyglo(at)icelandreview.com