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Catalyst of Change

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National Park Service photo of road damage after the Hebgen Lake quake National Park Service photo of road damage after the Hebgen Lake quake

A survivor's recollection of the 1959 Yellowstone/Montana earthquake

On August 15, 1959, the Purley and Irene Bennett family of Dalton Gardens, Idaho, faced an important decision. Should their vacation be spent in Canada or Yellowstone Park? This wasn’t to be a run-of-the-mill vacation, but a special one, likely the last time all six family members would vacation together. Irene realized that soon the two oldest children, Phil, sixteen, and Carole, seventeen, would venture out into the world on their own, with more important agendas than spending time with parents and younger siblings.

The final destination still hadn’t been chosen by the time the family piled into their green Ford station wagon and headed north the next morning. Finally, Purley Bennett insisted on an answer. “Where to? Will it be Yellowstone Park or Canada?”

“Animals, animals,” shouted five-yea-old Susan. “I want to see the bears.”

“I’d like to see the animals in Yellowstone too,” said eleven-year-old Tom.

“Okay, then if everyone’s agreeable, Yellowstone it will be.”

Each year, millions of tourists are drawn to the pristine wonder that is Yellowstone National Park. Who can resist the intrigue of bubbling, hissing, Technicolor mud, the fiery heat of Grand Prismatic Spring, or the searing heat of the Growler Steam Vent—not to mention the majestic scenery and wildlife?  

Few visitors are aware that the park is constantly transforming itself. Most of the changes are subtle and gradual, an absorbing delight. Others are sudden, fierce ragings that bring death and destruction. Such was the transformation that took place on August 17, 1959, when one of the most violent earthquakes in the history of the United States rocked Yellowstone Park.

After spending the first night of their vacation with relatives in Hope, Idaho, the Bennetts made their way through Madison Valley into Ennis, Montana, and toward West Yellowstone. Most of August 17, was spent touring Virginia City, Montana’s reconstructed 1865 gold camp, as the family visited the museum and shops and rode the stage coach. After a fun but tiring day they drove into Yellowstone to the Rock Creek campground, a peaceful site nestled along the bank of the Madison River, across from a towering mountain ridge with an elevation of 7,600 feet.

“We had an evening snack,” says Irene. “Other campers close by passed our camp going for water at the river. With the moon and bright stars we spread our tent on the ground with our sleeping bags on top to enjoy the beauty around us. We all liked sleeping under the stars, and everyone settled in for the night.”

The Madison River begins in Yellowstone and cuts a narrow gorge only a few miles west of the border of the park, near the point where Montana, Wyoming and Idaho meet. During the summer months thousands of tourists enjoy camping along the Madison, fishing its cold water for trout or roaming the nearby mountains. But since August 17, 1959, fell on a Monday, fewer than 200 people were camped along the river. Most were in Rock Creek campground near the Bennett family. The others were in two other campgrounds in the gorge and in scattered sites along the eight-mile stretch of river.

It had been more than three decades since the last strong tremor struck the park. Surely the possibility wasn’t troubling the mind of any of the vacationers that night. But at 11:37 pm an incredible rumbling sound woke Purley and Irene. As they lay there listening, a second roar, louder than the first, crashed through the trees.

The roaring roused Phillip as well, who sat up in his sleeping bag and stared in disbelief as the top of the mountain ridge across the river broke loose and cascaded down toward him. A hurricane strength blast of wind lifted him into the air, ripping away his sleeping bag and most of his clothing, and then hurled him into the wildly swirling Madison River.

Irene didn’t see the mountain collapse but she did feel the blast of air as it blew her to the ground. Helplessly she watched her husband struggle against the force of the wind. He grabbed a small tree for support, but as his feet lifted from the ground, he lost his grip and disappeared into the darkness.

“My next awareness,” says Irene, “was finding myself on a wet, sandy, river bank with a tree lying across my back.” Pinned against the pulsing earth her mind burst with anxiety over the fate of Purley and her children. Cold, wet, and naked, she began to dig. “I dug, rested, dug and rested, dug more and rested, ‘til at last I could pull myself free. Survival is one’s strongest desire.”

Sheltered by nothing but tree branches, Irene endured constant aftershocks as she alternated between prayer and frantic, unanswered calls to her family. When daylight dawned at last, she crawled down toward the river and finally heard a wonderful sound—the voice of her son, Phil. They reached one another down in the empty river bed. “Seeing him made my heart almost cease beating,” she said. “His leg looked like a letter S dragging behind him. Blood flowed from cuts behind his ear and the top of his head, but the importance of the moment was we’d found each other.”

Searchers found the body of Purley Bennett shortly before Irene and Phil were transported by pickup truck to the Madison Valley Hospital in Ennis, Montana. A nurse provided the devastated mother and son with some early details about the earthquake. Later, geologists pieced together a fairly complete report of the tragedy that had struck the Madison River canyon that night.

The mountain ridge standing across the river from the Rock Creek campground had a base of very hard but brittle rock. On this were several hundred feet of soft rock broken into flat layers like the pages of a book. These layers were all tilted toward the river. The ledge upon which the ridge rested broke cleanly with the initial shock. But it was the first aftershock seconds later that sent the broken layers of rock hurtling toward the river.

The section of the ridge that broke away was 2,000 feet long, 1,300 feet wide, and contained 80 million tons of rock. A 3,000 ton boulder and another only slightly smaller were hurled across the river and up a mountain to come to a rest almost a mile away. The massive slide dammed the river and created a new body of water, Earthquake Lake. The tremor, registering 7.5 on the Richter scale, was felt in nine western states and parts of Canada.

At the little hospital in Ennis the doctors and staff struggled to care for the influx of earthquake victims. Phil’s head was wrapped due to a serious head and ear injury, and he was placed in traction for a broken collarbone and badly mangled leg. “My injuries weren’t as severe,” Irene recalls. “The only break was a bone in my lower leg . . . a deep, badly torn laceration in my thigh, and some chest and neck muscle damage.”

Sorrow over the loss of Purley, coupled with overwhelming anxiety for her missing children, was harder to bear than the physical injuries. Irene coped by means of prayer, and by forcing her mind to focus on happier thoughts—the family’s home in North Idaho, swimming at Coeur d’Alene and Hayden Lake beaches, Carole’s upcoming high school graduation, and little Susan’s first day of school, now only a few weeks away.

The second heartbreak came several days later. Carole’s body had been located. “Sadness overpowered me,” says Irene, “as I thought of never having my daughter to love and share joys with again. I cried for her never getting to finish high school and be loved and have children of her own.”

Constant care and therapy kept the days full, but Irene describes time as being “non-existent” for her. With unrelenting ferocity more news came: another body had been discovered, that of eleven-year-old Tom. With deep grief and tears Irene thought back on the life of her young son—his curiosity and the way he loved to tear things apart to see how they worked, his fondness for fig bar cookies, his fantastic imagination. “I cried for this child who would never become a man, never further his dreams.”

Heartfelt condolence letters flowed in from all over the United States, and those letters, along with the healing care of hospital staff provided a spark of comfort in a world of despair. Irene tried to concern herself with Phil’s recovery as she clung to hope that by some miracle her youngest child might be found alive. But at last, Susan’s little body was also found.

“I sobbed for her missing her first exciting days of school,” says Irene. “And for her not having the opportunity to grow up and become a lovely young lady.” She recalled Susan’s many tea-parties, how she would kiss the television screen when her beloved Tennessee Ernie Ford signed off his program, and the way the little girl could eat a bowl of chili and leave all the beans neatly cleaned off in the bottom of the bowl.

“With Susan, all bodies of our loved ones had been found,” says Irene. “I had only Phil, and thoughts of life without the others seemed impossible to comprehend.” But the healing continued and by mid September the doctor released Irene from the hospital. She stayed with her sister in Hamilton, Montana, until Phil was released in early October. Finally, mother and son made it home to Coeur d’Alene, to a home that would never be the same again. “I had difficulty entering the house, “ admits Irene. “The memories bounced off the walls. I fell apart and cried… Phil and I had a hard task ahead, but needed to settle in, bear these trying times and move on.”

Carrying a staggering burden that would have broken many people, Irene knew she had to carry on for Phil as well as herself, and despite the ever-present pain of each day, the physical and mental healing progressed. As the following summer approached, Irene decided to pursue her dream of becoming a teacher. She enrolled in North Idaho Junior College 22 years after finishing high school.

Then on New Years Eve, 1961, Irene’s life took an unexpected, uplifting turn. Friends convinced her to attend a dance where she came back into contact with friends from the past, including a former classmate, Jack Dunn, whom she’d dated when a senior in high school. Irene admits she spent a lot of time with Jack that evening catching up on his life as a dairy farmer in Hope, Idaho. The two of them began a steady correspondence, and in June 1962 the couple married—a new start at happiness. “One of my best gifts,” Irene said, “was someone to love and someone to love me.”

In the summer of 1962, Irene was hired by the Bonner County School District and began her teaching career. She taught third and fourth grade and sometimes fifth and sixth at Clark Fork Elementary for 15 years and later did substitute teaching at both Clark Fork and Hope Elementary.

    Irene always had a desire to write a book about the earthquake, her family, and continuing life after catastrophic loss. She joined the Idaho Writers League to aid in improving her writing skills.

Thirty-six years after the earthquake, Irene and Jack, along with Phil and his wife Robin, returned to the Madison Valley. Near the Yellowstone interpretive center stands a huge slab of rock—part of the massive land slide resulting from the quake—with  a plaque bearing the names of the 28 victims. Four of those names are Purley, Carole, Tom and Susan Bennett.

“Feeling this had been a successful trip brought me pride and confidence that I’d attained my goal and could now finish my book,” Irene says. The completed memoir,

Out of the Night, was published by Plaudit Press in 1998—a true story of tragedy, hope and the triumph of the human spirit.

Photos: Page 34, road damage after the ‘59 quake. Photo courtesy National Parks Service. Photos this page: Rock Creek Campground (photo by Jan Dammer) and Irene Dunn, author photo from her book.

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Author info

Dianna Winget Dianna Winget lives in Sagle and writes a lot of fiction and non-fiction for the magazine market. She's currently working on a children's book scheduled for publication in the Spring of 2011.

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