Manage episode 279721963 series 2659594
A horrific crash-landing over the Rocky Mountains leaves two young survivors stranded in the snow.
Written, hosted and produced by Alix Penn and Carmella Lowkis.
Theme music by Daniel Wackett. Find him on Twitter @ds_wack and Soundcloud as Daniel Wackett.
Logo by Riley. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @tallestfriend.
Casting Lots is part of the Morbid Audio Podcast Network. Network sting by Mikaela Moody. Find her on Bandcamp as mikaelamoody1.
- Brandon Sun. (1979). ‘Air crash survivor recounts ordeal’, Brandon Sun, 1 June, p.1. Available at: https://newspaperarchive.com/brandon-sun-jun-01-1979-p-1/
- Cessna. (n.d.). Cessna Skyhawk. Available at: https://cessna.txtav.com/en/piston/cessna-skyhawk
- DoxNM. (2017). Brent Dyer Survived A Plane Crash – Extraordinary Lives. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EnhsySZTa1U
- Eisler, D. (1979). ‘We had to eat him and we did’, Maclean’s, 11 June. Available at: https://archive.macleans.ca/article/1979/6/11/we-had-to-eat-him-and-we-did
- Emilson, K. (2018). When Memories Remain (3rd ed.). Grunthal, MB: Perpetual Books.
- Fieldhouse, P. (2013). ‘Myths, taboos and superstitions’, in Food and Nutrition (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Springer, pp. 165-183.
- Gzowski, P. (1980). The Sacrament. New York, NY: Atheneum Books.
- Johnson v. Pischke. (1985). 108 Idaho 397, 700 P.2d 19. Available at: https://www.leagle.com/decision/citingcases/1985719700p2d191716
- Lawrence Journal-World. (1979). ‘Pair walk away from crash site’, Lawrence Journal-World, 26 May, p.11. Available at: https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=R5YyAAAAIBAJ&sjid=SucFAAAAIBAJ&pg=6763%2C5697679
- Regina Leader-Post. (1979). ‘Father’s protective instinct led to miracle in Idaho mountains’, Regina Leader-Post, 26 May, p.3. Available at: https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=C3ZVAAAAIBAJ&sjid=wz4NAAAAIBAJ&pg=1112%2C3294088
- Tam, L. (2019). ‘Cannibal crash survivors, 10-year-old gives birth to twins and China blanks Soviet sit-down request: headlines from 40 years ago’, South China Morning Post, 6 June. Available at: https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/society/article/3013453/cannibal-crash-survivors-10-year-old-gives-birth-twins-and
- Timson, J. (1980). ‘Survival on faith and human flesh’, Maclean’s, 6 October. Available at: https://archive.macleans.ca/article/1980/10/6/survival-on-faith-and-human-flesh
- Weekly World News. (1981). ‘Incredible tales of survival’, Weekly World News, 23 June, p.32. Available at: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=_O8DAAAAMBAJ&lpg=PA32&pg=PA32
Alix: Have you ever been really, really hungry?
Carmella: You’re listening to Casting Lots: A Survival Cannibalism Podcast.
A: I’m Alix.
C: I’m Carmella.
A: And now let’s tuck into the gruesome history of this ultimate taboo…
[Intro Music – Daniel Wackett]
A: Welcome to Episode Two, where we’ll be talking about the crash of the Skyhawk.
[Intro music continues]
A: I am looking forward to sharing episode two with you now, and I’ve been actually very good and not spoilt it all for Carmella in advance. Although the state of our WhatsApp messages are quite something to behold.
C: I’m glad it’s end to end encrypted.
A: I’ve restrained myself for this story because it’s a very ’Alix’ survival cannibalism case–
C: Are there any whales?
A: There aren’t whales, but there’s gastronomic incest, a dog–
A: Spoilers, the dog is fine.
A: And a plane crash.
A: But there’s also that human element that makes Alix really emotional about survival cannibalism.
C: Yup. I like the funny stories. You like the sad ones.
A: I– Just the ones that have this human value of life and how meaningful survival cannibalism can be and we’re not weird.
A: But I thought we could do with something a little bit wholesome considering… 2020.
C: I’m ready.
A: Here we go. Now, not to have too many flashbacks to Season One, but we’re going to step back in time to the 1970s into the cockpit of a Cessna.
C: I feel like we’ve been there before.
A: And there’s a storm.
C: [Laughs] Reruns.
A: It began as a routine flight on the 5 of May, 1979. The Cessna 172 – otherwise known as the Skyhawk, which according to Cessna.com is the (quote) “ultimate training aircraft and the most popular single-engine aircraft ever built” – flying from Estevan, Saskatchewan for a quick two hour hop across the border to Boise, which is in Idaho, in America.
C: I like that… Boise.
C: It’s a good, good place name.
A: Hold onto that thought you’re going to like that towards the end.
C: Whoo, okay.
A: The flight is taking place so that Brent Dyer, who’s 25, can have his final cross-country flight with an instructor so that he can qualify as a pilot in his own right.
C: Good for him.
A: Everyone’s quite keen on flying at this point. So he wants to qualify himself.
C This is kind of like your driving test?
A: Yeah. It’s the final logged practice before he goes and does the written exam.
C: I see… I’d forgotten this, but my sister reminded me recently that in my driving test, when I finished it, the instructor was like, ’well, I can’t technically fail you, but you should definitely take some more lessons after this.’
C: So hopefully he does better than I did.
A: …Considering this episode is called ’The Crash of the Skyhawk’…
C: Ah, So he’s, like, a man after my own heart.
A: There is a qualified pilot onboard. This is Norm Pischke. And he’s an experienced bush pilot. And in fact, he was so experienced that as soon as it became evident that the storm was a bit too much for Brent, Norm takes over the controls. He doesn’t seem too concerned about the situation. Norm has over 6,000 hours in the air and 20 years of flying experience.
C: So he’s a pro.
A: He’s a pro. He’s faced storms before. It’ll be fine.
A: Spoilers: it is not fine. There are two more passengers on board. There’s Don Johnson, who’s Brent’s father in law, and Don’s daughter, the 17-year-old Donna. Now Donna Johnson was the other reason for this trip. The reason they’re heading to Boise specifically.
C: Donna wants to go to Boise.
A: Donna wants to go to Boise, because waiting for them at Boise airport… Is going to be a puppy.
C: [Gasps] Oh fabulous!
A: A West Highland terrier that she has had her heart set on.
C: You can find a boy in Boise.
A: Good Boise.
C: [Laughs] Yes.
A: So, it’s just a quick little trip over to Idaho. Collect a puppy, overnight in the hotel and come back the next day.
C: As you do.
A: You don’t need supplies for that sort of flight. Only a few snacks; you’re only going to be in the air for a couple of hours – and it’s not like there’s a toilet on a Cessna, so you don’t want lots of drinks.
C: Yeah, that’s a good point.
A: So to return to the cockpit mid-storm. Now, this storm hadn’t been expected, but Norm had accounted for bad weather. And in fact, their departure was initially delayed to ensure they escaped the worst of it. They stopped to refuel at Livingston, Montana. And that’s when the news that there is some really quite bad weather on the way is reported. But the flight station manager and Norm plan out a new route to avoid the turbulence. It will take them a bit longer to get to Boise, it’ll probably be dark when they land. But it’s okay.
C: [Sadly] The puppy has to wait for them.
A: The puppy has to wait for them. You’re gonna be so sad about this puppy throughout this episode, aren’t you?
C: Yeah, it just wants its new mummy.
A: It’s only an extra three hours and 15 minutes in the air. And then the storm suddenly gets worse. As we’ve seen in other episodes – and if you’ve ever watched an episode of air crash investigation – and you’re flying in the mountains, those mountains will pop up incredibly quickly around what is actually a very small aeroplane. And I think it’s difficult to realise just how small and shaky a Cessna is in a devastating storm until you’re in one.
C: It must feel like being rattled around inside a tin can.
A: The plane’s being buffeted around by the elements. Norm’s not too worried, but they are losing height. And suddenly, as we’ve said, the mountains are everywhere. So Norm plans to fly into a canyon… Which seems like a bad idea–
A: But they need to escape the mountain range. What they want to do, what Norm wants to do, is fly down into the canyon gaining speed, so that he can fall into a dive to gain the momentum needed to climb out of the valley. So, there’s limited space to go straight ahead. There’s slightly more room to go down, try and let gravity help the engines gain speed.
C: Okay, I sort of see the logic behind this, but I also sort of see some potential problems.
A: You see why trying to go as quickly as possible into a mountain might cause an issue?
C: Yeah, it just occurs to me that maybe… you might crash into the mountain.
A: In 1981 the Weekly World News would say that the plane (quote), “ran into foul weather and crash landed into a remote canyon.”
C: Do we think that the ‘landed’ part is a bit generous?
A: Yes, there are photographs of what happens to the plane. And Norm tried to land the plane. But the Skyhawk’s left wing snagged a tree trunk and the plane span completely out of control. She skidded and bounced 40 feet from the site of the original impact. The only lucky break was that Norm had successfully turned off the Skyhawk’s voltage generators. So it didn’t explode on impact.
C: Oh good, it just got completely mangled.
A: Yeah, the impact’s, um, not pretty. I’m going to put a warning here, because there’s graphic injury, and then there’s graphic injury. Put your fingers in your ears for a bit if you don’t want to hear what happens. [Aside to Carmella] Not you. You have to listen.
C: [Laughs] Oh, well, if I have the option.
A: [Laughs] You can take small comfort in the fact that the force of the crash landing knocked the four into unconsciousness. Brent was thrown against and actually partially through the broken windshield.
A: The glass slit the muscles of his throat.
C: Oh God.
A: His shoulder was broken by the dashboard, his ankles were dislocated and a number of his teeth were knocked out of their sockets. But weren’t knocked out of his jaw.
A: Yet. Donna’s legs were badly damaged… This is the bad bit.
C: Wait, so– I’m sorry. That wasn’t the bad bit?!
A: Norm’s injuries were quite a lot. He had been thrown against the console. Head first–
A: The throttle handle smashed into his temple, tore away skin, bone and muscle and exposed his brain to the elements.
A: You could see his brain through the hole in his head. Unsurprisingly, Norm has traumatic brain injury–
C: But he isn’t dead yet?
A: He’s not dead yet.
C: I mean, that’s the part that surprises me. Actually.
A: The part of the brain which is necessary for communication is the part of Norm’s brain that was exposed to the air. So, Norm was suffering from something called ‘jargon aphasia’. This means that while he was able to understand what was being said to him, his replies came out in gibberish. Although, in his mind, he was replying rationally.
C: Oh, that must be so frustrating.
A: So he’s got no way to communicate with the other two survivors. Because there are only three survivors of the initial crash. Don Johnson died in the hours following the crash, while the other three were still unconscious.
C: So that’s Donna, Brent and Norm?
C: I’m listening.
A: At some point, however, Don had regained consciousness. Before he died, he made a decision, his final action. He took his seatbelt off, and took off his thick brown leather jacket and wrapped it round the unconscious body of his daughter.
C: Oh, that’s so nice. Apart from the death thing.
A: Later, Brent would say that Don gave “all he had to give” – quote – “his coat, he also gave his life for his daughter”. And this coat becomes deeply symbolic, with Brent telling Donna, that “he’s dead Donna, but he wanted you to live.” Don’s last action was to try and save his daughter’s life.
A: The three survivors knew that they needed food, shelter, and warmth. This story is quite intense, and the main narrative tends to focus on the two young survivors. But I can’t help here but think about Norm, who is incoherent, he’s blinking in and out of rational thought. He’s surely aware that he is in some way responsible for what has happened. He can’t be understood, but he’s also the only person who’s currently able to walk.
A: Because Donna has injured her legs very badly and Brent has dislocated both of his ankles.
C: And he’s survived– Sorry, backtracking to Brent. He’s survived having his neck torn open?
A: Oh, yeah. I mean, it’s bleeding. And it’s not pleasant. But it slits the muscle, not the artery.
A: So it’s gross. And it’s bleeding very sluggishly and everyone’s a bit concerned. But after a few days, it stops bleeding and he’s fine. He gets better.
C: Okay. The human body is amazing.
A: The human body is just bizarre.
A: Norm brings oil cans to the Cessna so they can start building a fire. And it’s Norm who walks into the storm after helping Brent and Donna into the relative comfort of the pilot seats. And it’s Norm who, on their second day after the survivors’ breakfast – it’s a can of Pepsi shared between the three of them.
A: Because you don’t need food or snacks for a quick hop across the border. Norm points out what he thinks is a road and Brent verifies that he can see a four-by-four. “It’s yellow”.
A: And Norm sets off down the hill towards the cars.
C: And then they’re immediately rescued and the story’s over and they get the puppy?
A: Norm’s body would later be found about half a mile from the crash site just sitting in the snow, because the cars were a mirage.
C: Oh no. A shared mirage?
A: Norm points out, unable to vocalise what he thinks he’s seeing, and Brent perhaps caught up with the excitement of there perhaps being a way out, says that he’s sure they’re cars. Later, after Norm has walked off, he realises that they’re not. But all that Brent and Donna can do is hope that Norm comes back. But of course…
Both: [Together] He doesn’t.
A: Brent and Donna, only 25 and 17, were now alone in the mountains. It was freezing. It’s covered in snow. The windscreen being broken means that there’s only limited shelter and Don’s body is still in the back of the Skyhawk.
C: I mean, useful?
A: Useful, but probably not a nice experience for his 17-year-old daughter.
C: I mean, yeah, if you put it like that.
A: She ends up having to rip up the carpet of the Skyhawk to try and block the windows, so they can actually sleep somewhere semi-sheltered. When they wake up on Monday, two days after the crash, they’ve made the decision that they’re going to survive.
C: [Laughs] I like that. They just decided. They’re like, ‘Yeah, we’re gonna survive this now, actually.’
A: They’ve thought about it, they’ve decided that, ‘We gave not surviving a go. Do you know what? We’re going to survive.’ So they start off with doing what everyone does in this situation. They make an inventory.
C: [Laughs] I thought you were going to say they just eat their dad straightaway.
A: Not yet. They’ve got maps, but they don’t know where they are.
A: They’ve got a fire extinguisher, which is sort of–
C: But no fire?
A: Yeah, the opposite of what they need. They’ve got some empty pop cans. They’ve got some paper. They do have a lighter, but at the moment they don’t have any fuel for it; they have to extract fuel out of the wings of the Skyhawk. But they do have some food.
A: Would you like to hear what food they have?
A: They’ve got a small box of Smarties, a granola bar (singular) and a pack of sunflower seeds.
C: So, when you said they were just packing snacks, that’s literally? Yeah.
A: They’ve got a first aid kit as well, which has aspirin, dressings, and StopBleed.
C: Any Calpol?
A: No Calpol, unfortunately.
A: But the StopBleed is quite useful. I Googled it. I couldn’t find any actual StopBleed from the 1970s, but it seems to be like a powder that you pour on wounds that turns into an odd sort of cement to make the blood clot and… stop bleeding.
C: I mean, that’s useful for the neck wound and the leg wounds and etc.
A: You’d think that, but they don’t use it on Brent’s neck because that stopped bleeding.
C: Oh, who needs StopBleed when the human body does that for you?
A: Exactly. They also have all of the suitcases. They have lots of clothes. They’re not useful clothes. Donna has brought, for example, a swimming costume.
C: I mean, don’t be judgmental Alix, who– You never know what situation you’re going to get into.
A: That’s true. That’s true. They put on all the clothes that they can find. Donna hands over her dad’s jacket to her brother-in-law, and they build a fire. After all, people were expecting them, therefore, they just need to wait and rescue will come. Surely Mr Robertson in Boise would let someone know they hadn’t arrived to pick up the puppy.
C: People often buy things online and then don’t turn up to collect them.
A: Donna was scared. She was wracked with guilt. She would say ‘It’s all my fault. It’s my fault we’re here and that dad’s dead’, all because she wanted a puppy.
A: This is one of those stories that I had to stop researching part way through to go and cuddle my dog. She wanted to walk to go and get help immediately, but she just couldn’t feel anything beneath the ankles. So, for the first time, the two prayed together. Now they’d never been particularly religious, but a lot of the research for this came from the book The Sacrament, and the religious imagery is leant into quite heavily. The jacket given to Donna represents life and the will to continue.
A: As we’ve seen before, the will to live can often be a case of ‘the spirit is willing but the body is weak’. They attempt to drink urine, and they’re fearful about the idea of eating snow without it being defrosted and just freezing your mouth to snow and not actually getting any moisture out of it. Which is very fair; that is a problem.
C: It is something you’re not supposed to do.
A: Yet they weren’t able to bring themselves to do it – either the eating snow or the drinking urine. But they did need to build up strength. With only their limited supplies, they were relying on hope for the future. Brent wrote letters to Cindy – his wife and Donna’s sister. They talked about the restaurant business of Donna’s family and how they’d expand that when they get back to civilization.
C: Putting some new items on the menu, perhaps?
A: Ooooooh. It always comes back to food. And the food doesn’t last long. Donna actually needs to chew and soften the sunflower seeds for Brent, because his teeth are hanging loose in his mouth.
C: [Horrified] Oh, yeah, I’d forgotten about that.
A: The teeth thing gets worse before it gets better. I’ll warn for that as well. On the fifth day, they have a stroke of luck. They find Brent’s watch. I don’t understand how his watch falls off in the crash but it does fall off. But it doesn’t break, and they now know the time.
C: I guess you could just have a really rubbish buckle or a weak strap. I– [Laughs]
A: Come on, tell us about a watch you had Carmella.
C: [Laughs] That’s exactly what I’m gonna do. I had this watch with a buckle and I always fiddled with the buckle, and it made the buckle really weak. And one day I was fiddling with the buckle in a train station toilet in Coventry. And the watch fell down the toilet. And I thought ‘You know what? I loved that watch, but I don’t love it that much.’ End of story.
A: [Laughs] And speaking of things that you don’t want to pick up from a random toilet in Coventry, they also find a packet of cigarettes and another bottle of Pepsi.
A: They intend to meter out these new rations slowly. Nope, they finished the bottle in half an hour.
C: They’ve got a watch, so they know how fast they’re going by this point.
A: That’s probably how they know it’s exactly half an hour. Brent also chain smokes all of the seven cigarettes.
C: I– Look, he’s in a desperate situation; I think he needs anything he can get.
A: It’s actually quite sensible because there are seven cigarettes and seven matches. So he decides that he’s going to use one match, smoke all seven cigarettes, and then he won’t be (a) wasting matches or (b) fantasising about smoking.
C: Okay, that makes sense, actually.
A: We’re going to ignore the fact that he actually uses two matches, but it’s still a sensible decision.
C: Yeah, he’s got five left over.
A: I like it when people make sensible decisions. They’ve reached the point with the food that they are grounding up the granola bar and melted snow, to create a thin gruel.
C: “Please, sir, can I have some more?”
A: Portable soup! I can’t…
A: The gruel is apparently disgusting.
C: You don’t say?
A: Thin ground up cold granola. Mmm.
A: And they’re also eating toothpaste. By the Thursday night, they had no food and pretty much nothing flammable left to burn, despite still having matches. Friday morning — another nasty bit – Brent digs out his teeth using a toy pen knife to cut through the nerve root.
A: Yeah, I get like cold shivers just thinking about it.
C: Oh, that’s bad.
A: It’s not nice. But, wholesome remedy: he collects the teeth in the tissue for his son, and he says that he’s going to take them all the way back to Estavan, and when his son wakes up, he’s going to get the biggest tooth fairy present in history.
C: [Horrified] A load of teeth?!
A: No, so the tooth fairy can take them and give his son money.
C: Right. I thought you meant he was gonna stand over his sleeping son, like, his vision was he’d return at night, his son would be in bed. He stands over his sleeping son and when his son wakes, he’s like “here son, have these teeth.” [Laughs] And that was a horrific image. But your version makes more sense.
A: [Laughs] I can see why you didn’t look quite as enamoured by that story as I did.
A: We’ve got a box of teeth.
C: Oh, are you one of the ’keep your teeth’ families?
A: I didn’t say they were our teeth.
C: Oh, yeah, that’s fair. I– I know, I know your mother.
A: [:Laughs] You’re not getting any context for that, I’m just going to leave that in. Six days after the crash and seven days since they’ve eaten any substantive food, it is Saturday… Don’t know why I phrased it like that.
C: Time for the weekend.
A: Time for the weekend. Saturday: six days after the crash and seven days since they had last eaten any substantive food, they knew what had to be done. In fact, in Brent’s own words, “we knew it had to be done. We just felt that Don was saying I gave my life for Donna. Don’t make it a waste.”
C: That’s fair, contextually speaking.
A: Speaking of context, both of them had actually seen the film Alive.
C: Oh no.
A: They knew the story of Flight 571. I doubt either of them would have ever thought that they were going to have to live it themselves.
C: I really fear that this is where our lives are going to take us. We’ll be prepared though.
A: We would be the most prepared if we are in a plane crash together. We’re like, ‘Right, guys. We’ve got the schedule lined up.’
A: ‘We’ve got the menu. It’ll be day ten when someone turns, does anyone wanna volunteer now?’
C: ‘Do we have any Calpol?’
A: ‘Any cheese? Any turtles? Any ducks? Any portable soup?’
C: Yeah, we’re set.
A: We know what we’re about.
C: Just, like, I know, it’s very, very low, the chance of us ending up in this situation. But we will feel like complete twats if it happens, right? We’ll be like, wow, we really jinxed ourselves.
A: Sorry. Are you saying that our ‘evil art’ would have drawn cannibalism from the depths?
C: Precisely that.
A: Okay, I think we’ve referenced all of Season One.
A: So, let’s jump back to Idaho. We all know what’s happening now. There was only one option left. In The Sacrament, Brent is quoted or perhaps paraphrased as saying, “Your dad is watching us Donna, he’s watching over us just the way God is and right now he’s saying ‘I hope they eat that old body down there, because it’s no use to me.’” Brent had been deer hunting, he was confident that he could do the dirty work, as it were. So, they prayed. And then they ate. On the Sunday, Brent writes to Cindy–
C: His wife.
A: His wife and Donna’s sister. This is a very pretentious sentence and I had to double check that I hadn’t stolen it from someone, but I haven’t; I am just this pretentious: Brent wrote with the clarity of a man with no doubt in what needed to happen and what the future would hold.
C: Amazing. [Claps]
A: I don’t know why I wrote like that. Anyway, throughout the entire ordeal, Brent remains quite convinced that he’s going to survive, he will see his wife and children again. He writes, “Cindy, we have decided not to be heartbroken any more with the lack of planes in the air.”
C: They decide to survive. They decide not to be heartbroken. I’m glad that they can just make these choices.
A: They decide that they’re going to walk and that in order to do so and to build up the strength, in a letter to his wife, he writes, “we are eating pieces of your father to keep alive.”
C: [Laughs] This is not funny, but the phrasing, that’s brilliant.
A: “We talked it over and decided that it would be stupid to turn around and starve to death on him.”
C: Yeah, I mean it would.
A: Exactly, common sense.
C: Only stupid people starve to death in these situations.
A: Well when there’s a supply of food there… They ate with some regularity, pounding thin strips of meat to dry out in the sun like beef jerky.
C: A classic.
A: Just as with the other tough food, Donna had to soften the meat for Brent.
C: Eww. This is way more gastronomic incest than all of the other ones. This is very uncomfortable.
A: There are layers of the gastronomicl incest here. Brief aside: I commit the grand sacrilege of writing in all my research books, I just find it easier when it comes to making and checking notes. And there’s a passage in The Sacrament where I’ve written at the top of the page, ‘Oh, you clever, brave girl.’
A: Because it’s Donna who says they have to start eating the meat raw, because they’re losing protein drying it out in the sun.
C: Ah, is that true?
C: I don’t know much about the chemical processes of drying food.
A: If you remember with Uruguay Flight 571, there’s that big discussion with the medical students about how if they cook the food, you waste valuable protein.
C: Okay, so they’ve remembered that from Alive, presumably?
A: Oh! Probably, yeah, they prob– That is probably exactly where they’ve remembered it from.
A: Imagine making that decision, when you’re 17, not to cook your father. They’re now convinced that no one’s coming to rescue them, so they need to walk out of there. While they’re eating meat raw, they are preparing for the trip ahead. And to quote one of Brent’s letters to his wife, “we have been drying flat, thin pieces of your dad in the sun to use for food on the way out.”
C: It just seems unnecessary that he needs to keep reminding her that it’s her dad, I feel like you could use a name or you could say ‘the body’. I feel like it’s just very pointed to say, ‘just a reminder, this is your father.’
A: It’s quite matter of fact.
A: Like,between the two of them, they only refer to what they’re eating as ‘meat’. But he’s quite forthright. After 15 days, they decide that the time has come to think about walking out. They’ve had some dark storms, but really they’re waiting for Donna to gain enough strength to be able to walk. As we’ve seen in other cases, there’s quite a lot of fantasy that goes on. Not only fantasising about being rescued and food, but about how cool, calm and collected they’re going to be after rescue. What Brent wants is to ask for a cold glass of milk and to impress everyone with how cool and collected that man is. He’s just asked for some milk.
C: [Laughs] I like that.
A: Brent is actually quite cool. He’s an ex-alcoholic. And he’s – I don’t want to say ‘religiously’ – attending AA meetings. But he’s like, ‘I’m this cool, calm ex-hunter. I used to be a bad boy. Don didn’t want me to get with Cindy but then I reformed myself.’ Brent’s– Brent’s quite cool.
C: And he’s got a load of human teeth with him. So that makes him all the more cooler.
A: [Laughs] Pockets full of human teeth. On the 17th, Brent finds the route that they’re going to take, he can see a patch of green over the mountains.
C: And this one’s not a hallucination.
A: This one isn’t a hallucination. But it’s also the only direction worth heading in. Everywhere else is mountains. So, they collect their things. They drain as much gasoline from the wings as possible into the Pepsi cans so they can have fire on the go. They take the meat, the flight book, the flight computer, so that Brent can qualify.
C: Oh! Wow, he’s really playing the long game here.
A: He is going to survive; he’s going to carry on living. He’s decided.
C: I admire that.
A: They take the rest of their belongings. Donna takes her hair straighteners or curlers. Can’t remember which. An electronic electronic hair product.
C: I mean, if they’re quite expensive, it can be hard to find a good pair sometimes.
A: And they take the first aid kit. A few days before they leave the Skyhawk, a whiskey jack, which is also known as a gray or a Canadian jay, lands on the tree that the plane struck. Donna considers it to be a sign, something live to follow.
C: And dinner?
A: No, Brent wants to kill it. But it’s a sign.
C: Oh, wow. Okay, so they decide not to kill it.
A: If there’s one thing that happens in this story, it’s decisions.
C: Look it’s better than the indecisions in some of the other ones, I guess.
A: They do have a brief moment of floundering, a bit of despair, but they decide to (quote), “smarten up.”
C: [Laughs] ‘I’ve decided not to despair anymore.’
A: [Laughs] I just want to put ‘decide’ into every sentence now. They leave the camera hung up on the plane. They were going to take it with them, but instead they’re leaving it so it will be the first thing seen by potential rescuers. It’s clearly been intentionally left. And they also leave a note with Donna’s address back in Estevan, asking the rescuers to send it home for them.
A: Brent promises to stand in for Don at Donna’s graduation. And they are leaving the next morning. When they get up on the Sunday it is (quote), “an absolutely beautiful day. If we needed a sign that the weather’s got to be good to walk today, it was egging us on,” as Brent said later.
C: It seems like they’re in the state of mind where everything is significant. And, I mean, it’s better than being in a state of despair. And they decided not to despair. So–
A: They did decide not to despair.
C: So there you go.
A: They say a formal goodbye to Don and Donna promises that someone will come back to get him. And then they walk. The pain in Donna’s feet is so extreme, they have to count in ten paces by ten paces.
A: Just so they can keep going. But they eventually find fresh water. And when they settle in for their first night, what do they see? But a Canadian jay.
C: Wow, the signs just keep happening.
A: Donna can hardly walk the next morning, so she’s stumbling on using her bag as an anchor. So she swings it forward into the snow and then pulls herself against the weight of it.
A: This goes well, up until one of the Pepsi cans of gasoline is shattered.
A: Brent takes the remaining bottles away from her. And then he also loses one.
A: He’s quite pleased that he didn’t have a go at her when she lost one, because then he turns around and does exactly the same thing. So their fuel is running quite low, but they find some berries. They try one but do not want to commit to eating random berries that they can’t identify.
C: That’s probably very, very sensible.
A: So instead, they have some more meat. They sleep quite soundly that night. So soundly, in fact, that they were woken up by Brent’s multiple pairs of trousers being lit on fire.
C: Excuse me?
A: They’d fallen asleep with their campfire still burning. They were so close to it that they were woken by the heat of the flames.
C: Oh God. And is the gasoline nearby?
A: No, no, no, they’re okay. They’re okay, Brent’s just–
C: On fire.
A: A little bit singed.
A: The next day, another hurdle. Quite literally. They have streams and rivers. But they manage to get across; there’s a flimsy snow bridge. And they grab some pondweed. It’s bland but not unpleasant.
C: And I assume that goes down a bit smoother than the meat from their father?
A: Father and father-in-law.
C: I was doing the, like, thing where it’s like, ‘Oh, you’re my son now.’
A: Oh, okay.
C: ‘That you’ve married my daughter.’
A: Brent has an intense moment of guilt when he eats a mushroom, because he eats this mushroom immediately, he doesn’t think of sharing it. But Donna forgives him, and a bit later he has quite a bad stomach-ache. So, I think the two might have been connected.
C: Yeah, yeah. Either poisonous mushroom or just intense guilt.
A: They make camp. And then, it rains. The jay is nowhere to be found and they have reached breaking point by now. Brent implores to the sky that “we quit, that’s it. If that’s what you want, you win, otherwise please stop this goddamn rain.”
C: Couldn’t he just decide not to be upset about it?
A: Well it’s okay, he doesn’t need to. The rain stops.
C: Oh wow. Ho-ho.
A: The Idaho Miracle…. No one calls it that.
A: Just me!
C: I was gonna ask, is that what qualifies as a miracle in Idaho?
A: They’d walked for nearly 35 miles. What was going one more day? Jump back to Canada.
A: Never let it be said that I don’t know how to build a cliffhanger. The absence of the Cessna had, of course, been noted, both in America and in Canada. A search had taken place with friends and family crossing the border to help with the rescue attempt. There were multiple tips and psychics were even consulted.
C: I mean considering all of the connections and intuitions going on, I think the psychics aren’t too far out in this story.
A: The best part is they’re actually not.
A: A psychic is consulted just on a whim and identifies an area that the Cessna could be. The search doesn’t end up taking place there. And guess where the Cessna was?
C: Is that psychic or is it, like, being quite good at reading a map and guessing geography?
A: I mean, more of the latter, but, you know, I’ve decided that it’s psychics.
C: Cool, cool. I like– I like this new energy for us.
C: We don’t have to report facts any more. We can just decide!
C: Like them.
A: However, by around the week/ten day mark, all possible leads had been exhausted. The search was all but officially called off. There was one last-ditch attempt to offer a reward to keep the search going, but this was firmly opposed by the original rescuers. When the family asked why, they were told it was clear that when cash rewards are offered, amateur searchers come looking and (quote), “as terrible it is for you and your family, it’s not going to be any better if someone else is lost too.” So, the reward was pulled. The families return home.
A: There were still some people who wanted to believe, however. Two school children, around 16/17, Kathy Muirhead and Brent Johner, who weren’t really friends of Brent and Donna, but knew of them in Estevan, wanted to raise some money to pay for just one more search plane. In an astonishing display of community spirit, they were given airtime on a local radio show and took donations over the phones. They didn’t know if they’d get much of a response. The show was only meant to last about 55 minutes. Instead, it lasted nearly three hours–
C: [Laughs] Much like this recording session.
A: I knew you were gonna say that.
A: Unlike this recording session, they raised $100,000 dollars. They actually took it further, and they decided to organise a dance to raise funds. Actually, two dances – one for the old, with an orchestra, and one for the young, with a DJ. All of the entertainment was volunteered. This is where I get emotional again. The dance was announced for the 24 May… May the 24th, back in the Idaho Mountains: Donna and Brent finally see evidence of civilisation. A footprint, logs that have been chain-sawed rather than fallen naturally, rubbish on the ground. I mean, littering is bad, but in this case we’ll allow it.
C: Probably quite a relief.
A: I think they actually see a soup can.
C: Ho ho ho!
A: They see cow manure, and they keep going. It’s been 19 days, but they eventually arrive at an ex-copper mine near Challis in Idaho. This copper mine is actually called Livingstone. No relation of the Livingstone that they landed at in Montana. Just a strange coincidence.
C: Coincidence? Or a connection?
A: The owners, Elmer Swanson, his son Alfred and wife Shirley, at first think there are intruders, hippies–
C: [Snorts] I mean, they’re not wrong!
A: When they hear noises coming from the food stores. “Who are you?” “We’ve been in a plane crash.” “Oh sure.” “No I’m not kidding, I’m Brent Dyer from Estevan, Canada, and this is Donna Johnson, we’ve been in a crash, can you help us?”
C: So they didn’t– Despite all the injuries and stuff, they didn’t believe them initially?
A: Nope, they just thought they were some god damn hippies.
C: With a massive neck injury, and leg injuries–
A: And on fire.
A: They had finally been rescued. Or, more accurately, they had rescued themselves. Now, this is one of my favourite parts of this story. I do not know if this is a false memory, and I don’t care.
C: [Laughs] We’ve decided to believe it.
A: Brent would ask Elmer Swanson where they were. “This sounds stupid, but what state are we in?” “Probably shock.”
A: I don’t care if that’s made up, I love it so much.
C: Suddenly becomes a sitcom.
A: After 19 days of (quote) being “bent and bruised and bled on and set on fire”, they were out. They were given hot coffee and hot food – spinach, chicken, rice and rhubarb pie.
A: Not all together, separate courses.
C: Mmmm. Sounds nice, though.
A: Well, especially considering what they had been eating. They’d been fed, and now they wanted to speak to their loved ones. There was no signal at Livingstone, so the local sheriff came to get them – County Sheriff Sid Tesucher – who in turn called ahead to warn the doctor, Richard Maxwell, of the new arrivals. They headed to Challis and Brent couldn’t stop talking about everything and nothing, about how far the radios reached, how long the journey would take, about how he really wanted a hot fudge sundae from Dairy Queen.
A: They said they’d see what they could do, even though there wasn’t a Dairy Queen. But after a moment of silence following a conversation about where the Skyhawk had downed, Brent had something more serious to say: “Sheriff, is there any law against… I mean, well, I ate some of Don’s flesh.” Donna started crying in the back of the car. “There’s no law against it son.” “Well… is it wrong?” “There are only two people who can answer that Brent, and you’re both sitting in the backseat of this car right now. You two and whatever God you believe in. I think you know the answer yourself and you don’t need Sid Tesucher to tell you what it is.” My heart!
C: That’s a big question to land on this sheriff.
A: Yeah, he was not expecting that.
C: But a very good answer from him, he was prepared.
A: He was ready for it. Back in Estevan, a phone rings. Brent calls Cindy, Donna calls her mum, and then Brent phones his dad. Now, I’m gonna give some snippets from these three phone calls, because goddamn it if this story’s making me emotional, you can suffer too. “What’s the matter, don’t you recognise your own husband?” “Will you come and get me mom?” “You sound funny, what did you eat?”
C: [Laughs] Oh no!
A: This is between Brent and his father, after they’ve had the emotional reunion. “You sound funny, what did you eat?” “Moss. Some candy. Berries. You know.” “That’s bullshit, Brent, you ate Don didn’t you?” “Yes.” “I thought so, don’t say anything about it until I get there.”
C: [Laughs] Oops, too late!
A: “Why? We didn’t do anything wrong. We did what the Lord–” “I know you didn’t. You did the right thing. Just don’t say anything until I get there.” “When will you be here?” “Just as soon as I can.”
A: Estevan, half an hour later: the dance is interrupted by an announcement by Bob Larter, friend of the families and local politician. “Ladies and gentleman, half an hour ago Brent Dyer phoned his father. He and Donna are–” and his announcement was cut off by the shouts and the cries of joy and laughter, the screaming and stamping. The band just go wild, apparently they start trying to play a piece of music and it just descends into noise. And then Larter has to break the news that only Donna and Brent had survived. Back In Idaho – we’re crisscrossing all over that border–
C: I’m getting whiplash.
A: The phone rings again. It’s an incoming call from Weiser. “Where the hell is Weiser?” Brent asks. Now, Brent had already had to speak to some reporters who made it difficult for him to phone home, so maybe he’s worried that this is someone just trying it on.
A: But the call comes through… “We were wondering if you still wanted the dog?”
A: Jimmy Robertson had seen on the news that allegedly two people had walked out of the crash alive.
C: This man is not me– He’s like, ‘I’ve sold this dog, I want this money’. [Laughs] Doesn’t even let them rest!
A: [Laughs] Mr Robertson, his wife, and Donna’s puppy will be with them the next day.
A: It takes less time for the Robertsons to make it up to Challis than it does for Brent and Donna’s family to come down from Canada. So the Robertsons act as surrogate parents to the two young people in the meantime. They coddle them, they bring them carrot cake and tell them stories. Donna gets to cuddle her new puppy.
A: Mr Robertson tells them about dog breeding, they don’t have to think about what has happened. And Donna calls her new puppy Boise.
C: Yeeaaaaah! Oh, I was hoping that’s what the puppy would be called! Oh hooray!
A: Of course, it’s not just Donna and Brent’s families that are making their way to speak to the survivors. Our good old friends the media are coming as well.
C: Oh, of course.
A: They end up practically barricading the hotel that Donna and Brent are staying in. The hotel owners actually end up smuggling their meals into their rooms under laundry so the press don’t know which room they’re in.
A: This ends up with a bit of a conflict between press and families and it’s actually reported in the papers that (quote), “when friends and relatives arrived they yelled at reporters, scuffled with one and threw small pebbles to drive them away.”
A: The cannibalism is an open secret by this point, especially among the rescuers – Brent and Donna had spoken openly about it to the Sheriff and the Search and Rescue team who collected them from Livingstone. Dr Maxwell was well aware of the additional nutrients the two had achieved from Don’s body. And the morning after Donna and Brent are rescued, Don’s body is recovered. It must have been evident what had happened to those who recovered the body.
A: And yet, when asked, one of the paramedics who went to the wreck of the Skyhawk – Ron Dunagan – he told the Idaho Statesman that he was (quote), “concentrating too much on removing the body to observe what the young couple had eaten.”
C: I mean, fair enough.
A: In fact, when rumours start spreading of the cannibalism on the day of Don and Norm’s funerals, both Sheriff Sid Teuscher and Dr Richard Maxwell refuse to confirm the reported cannibalism. Maxwell goes on the record to state that it was an “invasion of privacy, toying with the mental health of the two young people involved.”
C: Yeah, it’s good that they all wanted to protect them… We haven’t protected them, eugh.
A: The story has started to come out. It’s only rumours but they decide to tell Evelyn, Don’s widow, before she can be informed by the media. After a moment of silence, Evelyn said, “It’s what Don would have wanted you to do. He would have been very proud of you both.”
A: See, it’s one of those stories that just tells you about people. The sheriff lies to the media. There’s a man driving through Estevan when his car breaks down and the repairman doesn’t charge him, but because he’s waiting a couple of hours he tunes into the local radio show. After the repairman refuses to take his money, he gives him $20 for “those kids on the radio.”
A: That money raised by Kathy and Brent went towards other families in crisis, apart from a contribution which was held back for the education of Norm Pischke’s children.
C: Oh that’s good.
A: Brent puts his teeth under the pillow of his son, and his son gets quite a bumper blowout from the tooth fairy. Today, Donna – who married her childhood sweetheart – plays golf. She wins competitions; she’s in the local media! Brent Dyer died of a heart attack at age 47. In a recorded interview a month before he died, he said that he has felt a “serenity” in life, and to give the final words of this episode to Brent, he said that, “I guess I will probably, when my time’s finished, have lived a peaceful life.”
A: Sometimes survival cannibalism can be quite heart-warming after all.
[Outro Music – Daniel Wackett]
C: Thank you for deciding to listen to today’s episode on the crash of the Skyhawk. Cessnas: not as reliable as you would think.
A: Join us next time for a history lesson on what they don’t tell you about the Second World War.
[Outro music continues]
A: Casting Lots Podcast can be found on Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr as @CastingLotsPod, and on Facebook as Casting Lots Podcast.
C: If you enjoyed this episode and want to hear more, don’t forget to subscribe to us on iTunes, Google Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts, and please rate, review and share to bring more people to the table.
A: Casting Lots: A Survival Cannibalism Podcast, is researched, written and recorded by Alix and Carmella, with post-production and editing also by Carmella and Alix. Art and logo design by Riley – @Tallestfriend on Twitter and Instagram – with audio and music by Daniel Wackett – Daniel Wackett on SoundCloud and @ds_wack on Twitter. Casting Lots is part of the Morbid Audio Podcast Network – search #MorbidAudio on Twitter – and the network’s music is provided by Mikaela Moody – mikaelamoody1 on Bandcamp.
[Morbid Audio Sting – Mikaela Moody]
A: There we go, there’s the episode.
A: There was a dog.
C: Two done. Oh it was a good– I enjoyed that dog story–
C: That was good. I enjoyed that very, very much. Bosie!