When Ralph Flores and Helen Klaben were found alive on March 25, 1963 near the wreckage of his single-engine plane in the Yukon, their names became synonymous with “miracle.” For seven weeks the 42-year-old electrician and the 21-year-old Brooklyn girl had endured pain from crash injuries and temperatures 42° below zero while subsisting on little more than melted snow and a few biscuits.
Flores was flying home to California from Fairbanks and Klaben had accepted his offer of an inexpensive ride to San Francisco. During their ordeal he lost 51 pounds. She dropped 45 and after their rescue had the toes of her right foot amputated because of frostbite. Still, they survived on guts and ingenuity.
Not long ago Klaben, a divorced mother of two, and Flores, now a San Bruno, Calif., aircraft mechanic, returned to the crash site—this time as advisers to an ABC dramatization of Klaben’s 1964 book on the accident, Hey, I’m Alive. For both, the story has lost none of its incredulity. “Who would’ve thought I’d survive and be back here 12 years later?” marveled Klaben.
In the intervening years Klaben and Flores had faded into obscurity. For a while Klaben, now as then the more voluble of the two, actively sought the limelight. (“Hey, I’m a celebrity,” she gushed after her rescue.) If she hadn’t flown with Flores that day, she recently speculated, “Things wouldn’t have been too much different. I still would probably have gone back to school, gotten a job [she has had several: as editor, stockbroker and, most recently, operating tennis workshops], married and had a couple of kids.” She now lives in Vermont.
Flores, once reunited with his wife Teresa, became just another suburban father trying to support a family which numbers six children. He was grounded by the FAA after the crash for various reasons—carrying insufficient supplies, misreading his fuel gauge—but resumed flying in 1966.
In the Yukon again, Klaben could look back on the disaster partly as a blessing. “Those weeks gave me an opportunity to meet myself,” she said, recalling the hours spent meditating and reading books she had brought along, among them the Bible and Walden. Herself Jewish, she admitted that Flores’ devout Mormon faith sustained them both. “Most people expect they would not be able to cope with a crisis,” she declared, “and it was a great experience to find out that I could.”
In the TV film Sally Struthers and Edward Asner play Klaben and Flores (with the originals acting as doubles in long shots) and reenact the improvising of a shelter and tramping of an SOS into the deep snow near the plane. Playing herself in one scene, Klaben was instructed to “wave and shout as I did when we would hear a small plane flying overhead.” Said the real survivor wonderingly, “I was right back in it again, screaming and frantic, pleading with the invisible plane, ‘See me! See me!’ ”