An Air Pocket, a Crash, and Lauren Elder Alone Walked Down into the Valley of Life
Lauren Elder was focusing her Nikon on the California Sierra forests below her, lying deep in spring snow. The Cessna hummed and vibrated as she shot color out the back window. The pilot shouted over the noise of the single engine, “Get ready for a fantastic view when we clear the crest—there’s going to be a desert valley on the other side.” Suddenly, the plane was smacked by a downdraft. Elder turned and saw a wall of granite in front of them. “Solid, hard, no sky” is her remembrance. “I could see the veins in the rocks.”
When she came to—shortly after impact, she thinks—Elder had a fractured left arm and a gash to the bone below her right knee. Shattered teeth felt like gravel in her mouth. In the front a “demon mask” of blood covered the face of the pilot, Berkeley veterinarian Jay Fuller, but he was conscious. Next to him his girlfriend, Jean Noller, lay silent.
Wearing a lightweight wool skirt and jacket and high-heeled boots (the three of them had planned a picnic in Death Valley), Elder climbed from the tail section and gasped in the 10-degree air. She thought, “We won’t be home for supper.” The plane had crashed into the steep side of 12,360-foot Mt. Bradley just 15 feet from the top.
Noller began writhing convulsively after Elder and Fuller lifted her from the wreckage and tried to put a parka on her. She whimpered: It reminded Lauren of the sound rabbits make while being butchered. Fuller held Jean by the suspenders of her overalls for two hours, but then, weakened by severe internal injuries, he had to let go. She rolled over a cliff and fell 120 feet to her death.
That night Elder built a fire, using gasoline dripping from the Cessna’s tank, and heated rocks. Searing the skin on her hands, she carried them to the tail of the plane where she and Fuller had taken shelter. Despite her efforts, the pilot was dead by sunrise.
Alone and with little hope of rescue, the then 29-year-old artist almost gave up. “The idea of dying wasn’t appalling,” she recalls, “it was seductive.” But visions of her mother and boyfriend, Jim Fizdale, grieving convinced her it would be inconsiderate to die. Lauren climbed to the summit. Behind her was a thickly forested wilderness. Ahead—a mile and a half down a wall of rock and ice—lay the desolate Owens Valley and a few scattered small towns. Elder lowered herself over the edge.
Her ordeal, which is told in And I Alone Survived (the title is a paraphrase of Job), was only beginning. The book, released on April 26, the second anniversary of the crash, is a frightening account of inching down the mountain, punching holes in the ice with her boot heels and forcing her shattered arm and bleeding leg to support her 5’8″, 125-pound frame. With no food or sleep for 36 hours, she began to hallucinate. An additional problem was extreme nearsightedness—her glasses had been lost in the crash. She imagined she saw peasants in shawls (having visited Mexico two weeks before), a woman picking watercress by a brook and another coming out a screen door to hang laundry. The figures turned out to be rocks when she approached. She was sure she heard children.
At sundown Elder reached the valley and began walking toward civilization. Around 11 p.m. she hobbled barefoot into Independence (pop. 950). Bloody and crazed, she was turned away from two motels before a deputy sheriff picked her up and raced her to a hospital 13 miles away, where she collapsed. For the next 10 nights she imagined Fuller and Noller were standing at the end of her bed. Slowly she recovered.
Today Elder has capped teeth, a metal plate in her forearm, a jagged scar on her leg and a toe damaged by frostbite which still throbs occasionally. She is convinced the discipline she learned as an artist—”the ability to visualize a product and keep my energy focused toward that end”—helped her on the mountain. As an intermediate brown belt in karate, she also was in excellent physical condition. She did not realize the odds against her survival until she visited the site of the crash three months later. “At the time it didn’t seem that extraordinary,” Lauren says. “I couldn’t wait to get Jimmie on the phone and say, ‘You won’t believe what happened today.’ ”
It turns out he was not the only one interested. Her book (written with Shirley Streshinsky) is already in its second printing. This week the paperback rights will be auctioned, and NBC will begin filming a movie version this summer. Elder also received $30,000 in medical insurance.
Since the accident she has refused to fly in small planes but says she would probably relent if her father, a retired test pilot for Northrop, were at the controls. (It turns out there have been nine crackups in four years on Mt. Bradley, and the FAA admitted a fortnight ago that its chart of the area is outdated and inaccurate.)
Lauren was born in Portland, Ore. and moved almost every year with her family during Dad’s career with the Navy. Her parents now live outside Los Angeles. Her brother, Craig, 28, is a cinematographer for Northrop. After graduating with honors in fine arts from UCLA, Lauren later worked for three and a half years as a counselor in a halfway house for mental patients while she established herself as a professional artist in the Bay Area. Her paintings have been shown in 11 gallery exhibits, and she also freelances as a graphic artist and costume designer for theater groups.
Lauren feels basically unchanged by her experience. “After it was over,” she says, “I was on an incredible high for a long time. I was so glad to be alive. But the daily hassles of life brought me down to earth again.” Perhaps there has been one change. With the insurance and book money, she and Fizdale, who runs a neighborhood arts program, bought a house in Oakland and took a week’s vacation in Hawaii. “I haven’t had any hesitation,” Lauren says, “about indulging myself.”