LISTEN: Haines resident describes rescue after landslide hits neighbors’ houses

A large landslide in Haines, Alaska as seen from the air.
Heavy rains led to a landslide in Haines on Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020. (Jacob Cheeseman)

Joe Aultman-Moore was sitting in his cabin in Haines last Wednesday when a large landslide swept through several neighboring houses. Aultman-Moore spoke with KHNS about what he saw during his rescue from the slide area.

Read the interview here, edited for clarity:

Joe Aultman-Moore: I was in the middle of eating a late breakfast, or I guess it would have been lunch at that point, and yeah, and I heard it (the landslide) coming through.

KHNS: What did it sound like?

JA: I think it was a fisherman who described it as like a ‘Whoosh.’ That’s what it was. I thought it was a big gust of wind. But it just went on for too long and it was weird. You could almost feel it, it was like a kind of a bass vibration almost.

So I went out and I looked around, I didn’t see anything at that point. There was a secondary smaller slide and I saw trees going down. And that’s when I called 911. Because I was like, ‘Oh, okay, there are people over there. This is big.’

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JA: So I called 911. They said evacuate immediately. So I got all my gear on. I didn’t even didn’t grab anything at that point. I ran up to the road, and there was just a wall of broken trees 30 or 40 feet high. Several cars were there, several neighbors, and they were looking at it saying like, ‘Yeah, we got the call to evacuate … we can’t evacuate, clearly it’s impossible to get past this.’

And so I called 911 again. ‘We can’t evacuate — it’s clearly cut off.’ And they were like, ‘Oh, we’ll call you back.’ I’m like — ‘Okay!’ So I had a very, very tense 15 or 20 minutes.

The Haines dispatcher called back and said, ‘Get a flare, go down to the beach, we’re gonna have boats come and evacuate people off Beach Road. I was like, ‘I don’t have a flare!’ So, I grabbed my flashlight and a little backpack.

And when you hear that tone in their voice, when they’re saying ‘Get out now,’ every single second you’re spending wondering if you should grab, you know, this or that book, or your laptop, or whatever — Every moment you’ve been thinking about that is a moment that could be the difference between life and death.

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JA: Luckily, I have easy beach access. I just ran right down there. There were several fishing boats coming around the corner at that point, and we had my flashlight, and they came right over. We had to go almost all the way to the other side of the cove to get around the debris pile to get into the harbor.

KHNS: What could you see in the debris in the water?

JA: Just trees, shattered trees and floating bits of insulation board. At that point, that was the first time any of us were really seeing the extent of the slide, and realizing that if anybody was in the path of that thing, like … the mountain fell on them. It’s just total devastation. Anything in the path of that slide was total devastation. There were no trees left. There was no road, nothing.

KHNS: So you made it to the harbor?

JA: So we came into the harbor, and the boats went right back out. I walked to Mountain Market because the library was closed. I just walked down, and sat down. And of course, at that point, it was so recent. Nobody in Mountain Market really knew yet, so that was some weird whiplash.

KHNS: After all this happening to you, how are you feeling? Are you feeling sad about what happened, or distressed, or grateful for being rescued?

JA: It’s funny, because I think, at least from what I can tell, the other people who were immediately taken off that beach, especially the day afterward — we were all just ecstatic to be alive, and in town. It was strange having this, you know, this huge destructive tragedy happen and we’re, you know, we want to throw a party.

But there’s lots of complex emotions … especially realizing … realizing the extent of the tragedy that happened over there.