Updated: Feb 7, 2020
By Elin de Ruyter, Icelandic Roots Genealogist
****This article has been updated with the rescue story of Jón****
The recent avalanche tragedy on Mt. Esja and the January avalanches in the villages of Flateyri and Suðureyri in the Westfjörds of Iceland remind us of the power of nature and a stark truth: that we are at the mercy of nature no matter how much we try to harness it. Despite the destruction it caused in Flateyri, there were thankfully no fatalities. Hearing and reading of this event I was reminded of an Icelandic man I had read about who had survived one of the worst avalanches of the 20th Century, the 1910 avalanche in Hnísfdalur. This man was my grandmother's uncle. His story has always stayed with me and I wanted to know more about him and this avalanche of 1910 which took the lives of twenty people, ten of whom were children and left twelve people seriously injured.
Hnífsdalur is a town situated in the Westfjörds of Iceland. It lies north of Skutulsfjörður between Ísafjörður and Bolungarvík and was at the time considered one of the best fishing grounds within Ísafjarðardjúp. Its name translates as ‘Knife Valley’ perhaps referring to the sharp ridgeline of mountains that sit above the town which also make it a dangerous place to live in winter with the risk of avalanche.
Many Icelandic newspapers of the time reported on the 1910 avalanche in Hnífsdalur. Scouring through these articles, reading stories of this dark time, emerges within me feelings of deep sadness at the lives taken too soon, but also a sense of awe at the power of the human body and the will to survive in the face of extreme adversity. These reports also speak of the strength of community coming together. It was said that the people of Ísafjörður, when informed of the disaster, ran the whole way to Hnífsdalur, a distance of five kilometres. They worked tirelessly with their neighbours to rescue those that were buried in the snow wreckage and the ones who had washed out to sea.
The avalanche occurred at 8.45 in the morning on Friday the 18th of February 1910 . It was still dark out and the small community of three hundred people or so lay in the grips of midwinter. During the days prior there had been relentless northern drifts and heavy snow fall and the sleepy village of Hnífsdalur lay unaware of the build up of snow in the moutain Búðarhyrna above them. It was said to have happened at the speed of a gunshot. The snow fell and travelled down Búðargil directly over the farm of Búð sweeping away everything in its path including homes, sjóbúðir (crofts by the sea where fishermen would live and row from over the winter) and storage houses. There had been no forewarning and no chance to outrun the speed of this flood of snow. Turf walls were flattened to the ground and ran down to the sea, the snow spreading out over a 150 fathom radius (274.32 metres). Men, women and children still waking and preparing themselves for the day ahead were taken unawares, many buried beneath snow and wreckage, others swept into the icy ocean and drowning.
My grandmother‘s uncle Jón Sveinbjörn Steinþórsson (IR #I419181)was one of those that survived the avalanche of 1910. Originally from the farm of Dalshúsum in Önundarfjörður, he had spent the winter in Hnífsdalur in a sjóbúð, rowing out to sea for his livelihood, as was custom in those days. At 18 years of age he was already a foreman of the boat he was employed on. So easily his life could have been wiped out when it had only just begun but he was one of the lucky ones. The newspaper Ísafold dated the 26th of February 1910 retells the story of his rescue:
"Jón was staying in a sjóbúð employed by Páll Pálsson from the farm Heimabæ. There were six people who died from this croft: four hásetar (rowers), the woman who tended the croft and her seven year old daughter."
Jón had been half asleep in his bed when the avalanche hit. Along with the rest of the croft and its occupants he had been swept with the force of the snow towards the winter sea. While some like Einar Magnússon woke in the ocean others like Jón were buried in the snow well into the foreshore. Jón was discovered late at night and dug out by Páll Pálsson and some other rescuers. Miraculously he had survived the many hours in the snow and was stark naked when they uncovered him. He sustained injuries to his head and one of his arms were broken.
I can’t imagine what it would have been like to be sleeping in a warm bed one minute and the next waking in an icy ocean. The ocean temperature at this time of year in the North Atlantic is on average about 2°Celsius or 36° Fahrenheit. Whether it was warmer or colder than that at this time I am not certain, however, rapid cooling of the skin from icy water is known to trigger shock in the body causing loss of breathing control and can lead the body to be incapacitated which can lead to hypothermia within the hour. This, along with the weight of waterlogged clothes which in those days were made of heavy, thick wool as well as the severity of injuries received would have likely contributed to the drowning of some of the other croft occupants.
Jón recovered from his injuries and went on to marry twice and have four children. He was a well-respected seaman and was said to have never lost a man in the thirty years he was foreman of his boats. He died at the age of 102 years old on the 12th of January 1994.
Another remarkable story of survival that came out of this tragedy was that of a 43 year old mother who had wrapped her baby in her apron to breastfeed him when the snow hit, an act that miraculously saved the child. After eight hours trapped his mother was dug out of the snowy wreckage unconscious but they found in her embrace her child, not only living but virtually unscathed.
This woman was Jósefína Jósefsdóttir (IR #I306266). She was to bear many a sorrow from this disaster. She lost her husband Tómas Kristjánsson and two of her children in the 1910 avalanche including her 17 year old son Vigfús Olafsson who had been found alive, but died about two days later from injuries and her 7 year old daughter Sveinbjórg Kristjana Tómasdóttir. The newspaper Alþýðublaðið Sunnudagsblaðið interviewed Jósefína twenty five years after this incident on 24th of February 1935, where 77 year old Jósefína told of her morning before the avalanche struck. She had been preparing herself for the day and recalled the events as clear as if it they had only happened yesterday. Her other children had been dressing themselves and she heard her son Bjarni stirring in his bed so she had picked him up and put him to her breast to feed him, wrapping him in her apron and rocking him gently. The next thing she remembered was darkness and a heaviness over her and then waking in a room full of injured people. Jósefína had received grievous injuries to her head which she was later told had been caused by the shovel of the rescuers digging her out. She lay paralysed in her bed from her injuries and over the days was slowly informed of what had happened. She was told of the miraculous survival of her 2 year old son Bjarni and her 14 year old daughter Ólafía but recalled feeling helpless and heartbroken at hearing her older son Vigfús crying out for her as he lay dying from his injuries not far from her. She could hear the people around her clearly but could not move her body nor speak. It was in this mute state that she sadly discovered the death of her husband and other child by overhearing two ladies near her talking about it.
Jósefína lay bedridden in a neighbouring sjóbúð for a week and was then moved to the hospital in Ísafjörður where she spent another three months recovering. She eventually moved to Reykjavík and died on the 10th of October 1950 at the age of 82 years old and was survived by Bjarni, the son she had protected during the avalanche. He too lived a full life and died at the age of 92 years old on the 20th of November 1999.
Newspaper Articles accessed at www.timarit.is:
1910, ‘Snjóflóðið’, Ísafold, 22 February, pg.51
1944, ‘Slysið í Hnífsdal‘, Lögberg, 3 March pg.1
1945,‘Snjóflóðið í Hnífsdal’, Alþiðublaðið Sunnudagsblað, 24 February, pg.4
1945,‘Viðtal við Jósefínu Jósefsdóttur sem bjargaðist með tveggja ára gamlan son sinn við brjóst sér’, Alþiðublaðið Sunnudagsblað, 24 February, pg.4
Arngrímur Fr. Bjarnason, 1944, ‘Snjóflóðin í Hnísdal og Skálavík ytri í februar 1910’, Lögberg 13 July, pg. 8
Bjarndís, 1994, ‘Jón Sveinbjörn Steinþórsson-Minning‘, Morgunblaðið, 14 January, pg.31