Tragic Accident in Westfjords

fatal accident Iceland

A woman in her twenties has died and her husband and young child are in hospital in Reykjavík following a car accident in the Westfjords. The three were returning to their home in Flateyri after a trip abroad when their car went off the road and ended up in the ocean. Passers-by rescued the trio and administered first aid before rescue crews arrived. The woman later died in hospital.

Last Saturday morning, Kamila Majewska, her husband, and their young child were on their way to quarantine in Flateyri after returning to the country from Poland when the accident occurred. Its cause is still being investigated, but roads were icy and slippery at the time. Passers-by saw the accident and pulled the family from their car. They were transported to the National Hospital in Reykjavík by helicopter. Kamila died on Saturday evening despite doctors’ efforts. Her husband and child remain in hospital.

Since the family was in travel quarantine at the time of the accident, rescue crews who attended to them were also required to quarantine, but have since been released.

Poor Phone Service in Area

The accident occurred in Skötufjörður fjord, some 70 kilometres from Ísafjörður. According to RÚV, the travellers who spotted the accident could not reach emergency services at the location because there was no phone service. They had to drive further along the road until their phone connected to the network. In response to the accident, Þorleifur Jónasson of Post and Telecom Administration in Iceland stated it would be both costly and difficult to ensure perfect phone service across the Westfjords, primarily due to its mountainous topography.

Of Cows and Courage: New Picture Book Celebrates Heroic Heifer

A new picture book celebrates the heroic feats of a brave cow and the kindness of strangers, RÚV reports.

In October 1987, it looked like Sæunn the Cow’s life was quickly coming to its end. Known then as Harpa, she and two of her compatriots were being led to slaughter in the Westfjords village of Flateyri when she decided to take fate by the reins and make a daring escape. Rushing toward the sea, Sæunn flung herself into the fjord of Önundarfjörður and swam three kilometres across it. Many cows would have simply given up mid-swim or turned back around, but not her. Instead, she paddled on and, reaching the shore at Valþjófsdalur farm, was met by a friendly couple who rechristened her with a name befitting her feat (Sæunn, ‘sæ-’ meaning ‘sea’) and gave her safe haven for the rest of her days.

Screenshot from a 1987 program on RÚV about Sæunn’s sea swim to freedom

Sæunn’s story has now been memorialized in a picture book written and published by Eyþór Jóvinsson, a bookseller and filmmaker who lives and was raised in Flateyri. The book, Sundkýrin Sæunn (‘Sæunn the Swimming Cow’), is illustrated by Freydís Kristjánsdóttir.

Eyþór was only two years old when Sæunn made her great escape, but the story of this “Fjord Hero” quickly became the stuff of local lore and is very dear to him, not least because there’s a twist—Sæunn was pregnant when she swam across the fjord, which Eyþór thinks likely contributed to her tenacity. To make the whole adventure even more narratively perfect, Sæunn gave birth to her calf on Sjómannadagur, the Fishermen’s Day holiday. Her calf was given an equally seaworthy name: Hafdís, or ‘Sea nymph.’

Stories of Sæunn’s exploits made her famous not only in Iceland, but also travelled as far as India. The couple who adopted Sæunn after her escape received letters from all over the world, thanking them for their kindness and sometimes including donations. (Conversely, the farmers in Flateyri were known to have received some threatening letters for having attempted to slaughter the cow.)

Sæunn ended her life on the same beach that she came ashore on the day of her amazing swim. “She was old and very ill, so the farmer led her to the seashore. She was buried with a view of the fjord and the sea that had saved her,” explained Eyþór.

Sundkýrin Sæunn is available in bookstores around Iceland and is perhaps preamble to even grander horizons. Eyþór says he hopes to one day make a film about Sæunn, so her fame will once again go global.

After the Avalanche

Westfjords avalanche

In January 1995, an avalanche hit the small town of Súðavík in the Westfjords. The town was decimated, and out of the 227 inhabitants, 14 people died. Some were rescued, including a teenage boy who spent 23 hours buried under the snow.

In October that same year, another avalanche hit Flateyri, a town of 350 people about a half an hour’s drive away. This time, 20 people were lost. The two avalanches were not only a blow to those affected, but to the nation as a whole. In the decades since, energy and funds have been spent building up anti-avalanche earthworks to prevent such disasters from happening again.

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Homes Evacuated Due to Avalanche Risk

Buildings in two Westfjords towns have been evacuated due to avalanche risk, the Icelandic Met Office reports. Severe weather in the region and heavy snowfall on the mountains led to the decision to evacuate homes and other buildings in the towns of Flateyri and Patreksfjörður and nearby areas. The Icelandic Met Office is monitoring the situation closely in consultation with the Department of Civil Protection.

Recent Flateyri avalanches

Two avalanches fell in the town of Flateyri this past January. While no serious injuries were sustained, the town’s harbour was decimated and many fishing boats destroyed. Three avalanches fell outside the town in late February as well. This year marks the 25th anniversary of two fatal avalanches in Flateyri and nearby Súðavík.

Blizzard in Northwest Iceland throughout today

A Northeasterly blizzard is currently underway in the Westfjords and Northwest Iceland. Extreme weather conditions are expected to continue in the region until this evening. Considerable snowfall and gale-force winds are expected in the region, particularly in the Westfjords. The storm will move east this evening, affecting North Iceland.

Three Avalanches Fall Outside Flateyri

Three avalanches fell near the village of Flateyri in the Westfjords on Friday, RÚV reports. Luckily, all three took place away from residential areas. The Icelandic Met Office issued a red alert for avalanches in the area on Saturday and orange alerts for Sunday and Monday.

The smallest of the reported avalanches occurred in the Ytra Bæjargil ravine; the other two were of medium size and took place in two ravines not far away. The Met Office also recorded four very small avalanches elsewhere in the area before noon on Saturday. These took place in Seljadalur valley (near, but outside of, the village of Bolungarvík), Rauðagil ravine (near Ólafsfjörður – two occurrences), and Oddsskarður ski area near Eskifjörður.

Avalanches are not an uncommon occurrence in the Westfjords and Flateyri, in particular, has a tragic history with them. Just this January, two large avalanches fell on the town, flowing over two protective barriers that were built to prevent just such an occurrence. The slides incurred property damage and completely destroyed the town’s small harbour, but thankfully, no one was seriously injured.

This was unfortunately not the case in the case of the avalanche that fell on the town in the early hours of October 26, 1995. Forty-five people were buried by the immense wave of the snow. Twenty-one individuals managed to dig their own way out and four were saved by rescue services, but 20 people – ten men, six women and four children – lost their lives in the event.

The January avalanches in Flateyri ignited criticisms of the government’s allocations of funds from the Landslide Fund to be used for avalanche protection throughout the country. Former Ísafjörður mayor Halldór Halldórsson estimated that the fund has roughly ISK 23 billion ($1.8 million/€1.66 million), which could be used to improve avalanche protection throughout the country.

According to Halldór, plans were initially drawn in the early 2000s that called for the completion of avalanche mitigation measures by 2010. Later regulation pushed this deadline to 2020; current plans assume that the measures won’t be finalised until 2050.


Avalanche Survivor Speaks: “the Snow Was Like Concrete”

Flateyri avalanche

Alma Sóley Ericsdóttir Wolf, a fourteen-year-old resident of Flateyri in the Westfjords, became trapped in her home after a massive avalanche fell on the town Tuesday. In an interview with RÚV yesterday, Alma Sóley related her experience to reporter Sigríður Dögg Auðunsdóttir.

Like Concrete

“I heard rumbling for about two seconds and then the glass shattered, and I was buried in snow,” Alma Sóley said, describing the avalanche that descended upon her home in Flateyri, just before midnight on Tuesday, January 14. She was trapped inside her room for half an hour as snow flooded in through the window.

“It was like concrete. I felt as if I had been cast in a mould. I could only move about two centimetres. I could clench my fist and move my head a little, but I couldn’t try to break free or change position,” Alma Sóley said in an interview with Sigríður Dögg Auðunsdóttir, who spoke with Alma and her mother, Anna Sigríður Sigurðardóttir, in Ísafjörður yesterday.

Despite everything, Alma was convinced that someone would come to her rescue, worrying more about the fate of her family than about herself. She believes that she lost consciousness during the ordeal and is unable to recall the moment that rescuers found her. “I believe I passed out, although I had been conscious for about five or six minutes. I thought of my mother and my siblings because I thought that they were trapped in the snow, too. I hoped that they were okay. I expected someone to find me.”

Clung to Conviction

Alma’s mother, Anna Sigríður, was likewise convinced that her daughter would be rescued. “In reality, I was surprisingly unworried; I clung to some kind of conviction. I think maybe that the shock hasn’t manifested itself yet. We examined the house, and I’m quite certain that when I realise where I stood, for example, and where the avalanche fell, that I’ll begin to register the shock fully. At the same time, I’m extremely grateful for being alive and that everything turned out okay, given the circumstances.”

Alma and Anna expressed their gratitude for the aid of rescue volunteers. Alma looks forward to returning to school in Flateyri. “The rescue teams are digging up everything that they can salvage. And then I’d like to return to school.”

Below are a few photos of the aftermath of the avalanche, among them Alma Sóley’s house, courtesy of Lísa Kristjánsdóttir.

[media-credit name=”Lísa Kristjánsdóttir” align=”alignnone” width=”1024″]Avalanche[/media-credit]

[media-credit name=”Lísa Kristjánsdóttir” align=”alignnone” width=”1024″]Flateyri after avalanche[/media-credit]

[media-credit name=”Lísa Kristjánsdóttir” align=”alignnone” width=”1024″]Flateyri Avalanche[/media-credit]

Ministers to Visit Flateyri in Wake of Avalanches

Bjarni, Katrín, Sigurður Ingi coalition

The chairmen of the three coalition parties, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, Bjarni Benediktsson, and Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson, will travel by helicopter to Flateyri this afternoon, RÚV reports. The ministers intend to survey the damage wrought by two large avalanches that descended upon the town this week.

Significant Damages

Just before midnight on January 15, two large avalanches fell on the town of Flateyri in the Westfjords (and one in Súgandafjörður, as well). Although no one was seriously injured, properties were damaged, and Flateyri’s small-boat harbour was completely destroyed.

Katrín Jakobsdóttir, Prime Minister and chairman of the Left-Green Party; Bjarni Benediktsson, Minister of Finance and chairman of the Independence Party; and Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson, Minister of Transport and Local government, and chair of the Progressive Party, will travel by the coast guard helicopter to Flateyri this afternoon. The ministers will spend the day in the Westfjords, surveying the damage caused by the avalanches, before returning to Reykjavík in the evening.

Representatives from the Icelandic Red Cross and the Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management will also be travelling with the ministers, including Hulda Ragnheiður Árnadóttir, director of the National Catastrophe Insurance of Iceland, and Jón Svanberg Hjartarson, director of ICE-SAR.

The Landslide Fund

As RÚV reported this morning, former mayor of Ísafjörður Halldór Halldórsson has criticised the government’s allocation of funds to avalanche protection. As a board member of the Landslide Fund, Halldór estimates that the fund has roughly ISK 23 billion, which could be used to improve avalanche protection throughout the country.

According to Halldór, plans were initially drawn in the aughts that called for the completion of mitigation measures against avalanches in 2010. Later regulation pushed back these plans to 2020. Current plans assume that these measures won’t be finalised until 2050.

“We must prioritise and act quickly … I’m glad that the government has declared that it will examine the protective barriers. Everything needs to be as safe as possible, so that future avalanches won’t flow over the barriers.”

Snow from both of the avalanches that fell in Flateyri this week flowed over two protective barriers, which were constructed following a large avalanche in 1995.

Halldór added that there is much that needs to be done in the Westfjords, in the Eastfjords, and in North Iceland: “I’ve thought a lot about how these protective measures are decided in the eyes of the law. We’re only protecting residential properties, not residential areas or harbours.”

Dozens of Avalanches Likely Fell, Says Met Office Expert

Avalanche researcher

Despite only being able to confirm three avalanches over the past 24 hours, experts at the Icelandic Met Office estimate that many more avalanches have actually fallen in the Westfjords.

In an interview with RÚV earlier today, Tómas Jóhannesson, avalanche researcher with the Met Office, stated that the three large avalanches that swept through the Westfjords last night likely coincided with others:

“We’ve only received reports of three avalanches, along with the flood in Tröllaskagi, but we estimate that dozens of avalanches have fallen. We won’t be able to confirm this until daybreak – until the weather improves and the conditions are more favourable. There aren’t always people around in those places where avalanches fall,” Tómas stated.

As Tómas mentioned, a blizzard is still passing through the Westfjords, with snowdrift and poor visibility. He expects more avalanches to fall in the area, but no further flooding. Most of the roads in the area are closed.

Asked whether the avalanche that fell yesterday was comparable to the one in 1995, Tómas refused to say:

“We haven’t been able to examine conditions. It wouldn’t be surprising if it’s slightly smaller. Nonetheless, it was quite big. That’s for sure. But it won’t be clear until a further examination is concluded.”

Tómas was also asked about the protective wall that was constructed following the 1995 avalanche:

“The avalanche would have advanced much further into the cape; the wall kept the cape from being inundated. It’s more difficult to speculate whether or not the wall saved lives. If it weren’t for the wall, we would have evacuated the area. Without the wall, Flateyri would be considered the most at-risk avalanche area in the country.”

Three Large Avalanches Sweep Through Westfjords

Three large avalanches fell in quick succession in the Westfjords of Iceland just before midnight yesterday, RÚV reports. Two fell in Flateyri and one in Súgandafjörður directly across from Suðureyri, the latter of which caused a tidal wave that struck the town. Although no one was seriously injured, properties were damaged and residents were understandably frightened.

Rescued by ICE-SAR

A teenage girl was rescued from the avalanche in Flateyri by ICE-SAR. The girl escaped without serious injury, although she had been trapped for half an hour, the avalanche having fallen on a part of her home. Her siblings, a five-year-old girl and a nine-year-old boy, managed to escape from the house with their mother by climbing through a window. The coast guard ship Þór transported the girl and her relatives to Ísafjörður. The girl’s condition is good, given the circumstances.

A reporter for RÚV spoke to the girl’s doctor this morning, who stated that she was both cold and tired:

“Her room was filled with snow. Thick snow. Like concrete. Fortunately, rescuers worked quickly to shovel the snow and help her escape. The girl’s mother knew exactly where she was … there was a nurse in Flateryi, very experienced, who warmed the girl.”

Small-boat harbour destroyed

The second avalanche that fell on Flateyri caused considerable damage to the harbour. Magnús Einar Manússon, director of ICE-SAR in Flateyri, described the damage in an interview with Vísir:

“The small boat harbour is gone. All of the boats have sunk. We estimate that seven boats have sunk or are half-submerged by the harbour,” he stated.

Gísli Jón Kristjánsson, the owner of Alda ÍS, the only vessel that was not destroyed on the Flateyri harbour, told RÚV that the avalanche had obviously been quite powerful:

“The entire fleet is gone and so is the floating dock. It must have been quite the blow; there’s a lot of snow on the harbour. It’s a catastrophe.”

An orange weather alert is still in effect for parts of the Westfjords. Roads leading in and out of Ísafjörður are impassable. No flights will depart from the Ísafjörður Airport today. Travellers in the area are encouraged to monitor conditions on Safetravel.

Disaster Relief

Flateyri residents reacted quickly to the avalanche but were quite taken aback; 25 years ago, on October 26, 20 people died when a comparable avalanche struck the town. Protective walls that were erected following the avalanche in 1995 appeared to have prevented the avalanches from causing further damage. The walls were not, however, designed to protect the harbour.

Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir spoke to RÚV this morning:

“I think all of us are startled. I took the time this morning, as soon as I heard the news, to contact a few residents in the Westfjords. Everyone is, of course, quite startled, recalling the events of 1995, which are still fresh in our memory.”

The Icelandic Red Cross has opened disaster relief centres in Flateyri, Suðureyri, and Ísafjörður, offering relief to residents who have been asked to evacuate due to avalanche warnings. 45 individuals are currently seeking refuge in Ísafjörður and nine in Suðureyri. The centre in Flateyri will open at 1 pm today. According to Helena Skaptason Jónsdóttir, a psychologist with the Icelandic Red Cross, crisis counsellours will be assisting residents throughout the day.

Tidal Wave

The tidal wave caused by the avalanche in Súgandafjörður did not cause significant damage to the town of Suðureyri. Ocean water flooded a single house and encroached on a nearby road.

This article will be updated.