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Trapped, but still sane: Survivors of disaster speak out

/ Source: The Associated Press

Randy Knapp was a teenager when he spent 13 nights trapped in a whiteout on Oregon's Mount Hood. Thirty-three years later, he's still climbing.

Jonathan Metz tried to saw off his arm this summer after it got stuck in his furnace and infection set in. Crouched alone for three days in his Connecticut basement, he has returned to his job as a finance manager for an insurance company.

Their stories of survival reveal a heartening truth for the 33 men trapped deep in a Chilean mine: While nobody walks away from catastrophe completely unscathed, neither do most survivors succumb in the aftermath to paralyzing despair, said George Bonanno, a psychology professor at Columbia University's Teachers College.

Rescuers have reinforced the hole drilled to bring the miners to safety and expect to being pulling the men from their subterranean purgatory by midnight Tuesday.

Bonanno, who specializes in resilience during times of trauma, has found a low rate of extreme problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder, in a majority of people coping after disaster.

"We concluded that the ceiling for harmful effects is about 30 percent of those exposed," he said of his review of the science being published in a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. "Most everyone else either recovers quickly or shows great resilience. Some people will be deeply psychologically wounded, but most people will not."

Certainly, recovery can take time. A lawsuit nearly wrecked Nicholas White's life after he spent 41 hours in a New York City elevator in 1999. He's working again after long stretches of unemployment.

Though their circumstances were quite different, the hearts of Knapp, Metz and White go out to the miners in Chile. One promised in a letter sent up through a narrow bore-hole that he'll give up mining if he makes it out alive.  "Everything is going to change," he wrote.

That's more true than the miners may know, said Metz.  

"The battle is really just beginning," he said. "The second they make the ascent to the surface, that's when the real trial will begin for them."

Change is inevitable, but life need not be heavy with pain, fear or sorrow. Knapp, Metz and White know that in their own ways.

Stuck on the mountain

Knapp was 18 in 1975, living in the eastern Washington town of Walla Walla, when he and two 16-year-old friends decided on a New Year's Eve summit climb of Mount Hood, a trip two of them had made before.

They had down coats, a stove, food for 10 days, climbing gear and a Bible.

All went reasonably well until a blinding storm closed in and they decided to head home, but Knapp had forgotten the map in the car and they guessed wrong on the way down. A snow cave was their only chance. One collapsed. The second was home for 13 nights. They were always cold, passing the time keeping a long tunnel from their shelter clear of snow, and reading Bible stories aloud.

"We were confident in God, but we kind of thought of it initially as a test of our faith," Knapp said. "We trusted God and we talked about what we would learn from it all. We finally got to the place where we never doubted that God would have the ability to see us through and to give us a way out of it."

By the last week, they were down to spoonfuls of Jell-O pudding powder combined with pancake mix and slush. "There were times when we got on each other's nerves," Knapp said, but faith "molded us together," along with the twice-daily chore of keeping their tunnel exit free of snow.

The weather finally broke and they crawled out of their cave on Jan. 16, 1976, climbing to a ridge where they could see searchers above. They learned later the rescue effort was about to end.

"We never lost confidence in the assurance that we were going to survive," Knapp said. "That's what keeps people alive."

He never considered giving up his outdoor pleasure in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest. "It's such a thrill for me to be up in the mountains. That's where I meet God in the most intimate ways."

Knapp, 52, is now a writer, carpenter and part-time pastor in Medford, Ore.

Unimaginable choice

Metz, 31, left behind apartment life in the city for a house in the suburbs so he could have more room to pursue his passion, woodworking.

With a girlfriend in North Carolina, it was just Metz and his beagle mix, Portia, in West Hartford, Conn. This June, during a routine trip to the basement to clean his ancient furnace, he dropped the nozzle to his vacuum deep inside the huge boiler. Metz tried one last push to grab it when his arm lodged above the elbow at an odd angle.

"There was rust on the tubes that cut up my arm pretty badly, and it started to swell within minutes," he said. "It all happened in an instant. Panic, terror, the blood was dripping down into the heating box."

It was a Monday. Nobody was alarmed enough to investigate when he missed work. Portia barked and whimpered above, blocked from the basement by a closed door. Twelve hours passed and he began to smell the stink of infection. Convinced he needed to save his life, thinking what would MacGuiver do, he fashioned a tourniquet with a cord, reached for some loose saw blades and tried to amputate his left arm.

The pain was like lightning. He got close, but he couldn't finish the job.

Drifting in and out of consciousness, he used a filthy flip-flop to capture sips of dirty boiler water. He listened for his dog, worried she, too, might perish. She had fallen silent, alone without food and water.

"The sense of being alone was very difficult beyond just the physical trauma," Metz said. "The absolute sense of isolation and loneliness added to the despair. As selfish as this might sound, if there had been somebody else trapped down there with me, I think it would have helped."

With a new prosthesis after doctors couldn't save the arm, Metz has a special hook attachment that has him back in his basement workshop making tables and clocks. A company donated a new furnace to replace his.

He's back at work at his job as an insurance finance manager. His fiancee recently moved in and they plan to marry Nov. 13.

Metz offered some specific advice for the miners, who he said likely would be overwhelmed by the flood of attention that will greet them upon rescue.

He cautioned the men to get help corralling media attention, but not to avoid it. For Metz, talking about the ordeal was helpful, especially because the subject was too painful for his family to discuss repeatedly.

"I found it therapeutic to speak about my experience," he said.

At the same time, Metz warned that after the attention wanes, the real struggle will begin. He urged the miners' families and other supporters to watch for mental and emotional crises weeks after the miners return home.  

"Suddenly, it's just you," he said. "For these miners, bless their hearts for surviving, but in a month or two months, after things have died down a little bit, that's when whatever weight they're carrying with them will start to come out."

Video tells elevator tale

White's story is best told in time-lapse surveillance video from Rockefeller Center's McGraw-Hill Building that went viral after The New Yorker magazine put it online in 2006.

White was working late one Friday night in 1999 as a production manager for Business Week when he headed downstairs from the 43rd floor for a smoke. On his way back up, waved in by a janitor buffing floors, the elevator car jolted, the lights flashed and he stopped.

"I was like, well, this sucks, this is inconvenient," he said. "How long is this going to take?"

His feeling of calm, imagining Steve McQueen tossing a baseball against his cell wall in "The Great Escape," didn't last. "Eventually I thought I might die in there, and thought what a slow, lame way to go."

The sped-up, grainy video shows White in black and white, initially bewildered as he pushes buttons, trying the intercom and the alarm bell. He eventually pulled the alarm button off completely and said the noise was loud and constant. Hours pass and he paces, pries open the doors to reveal a cinderblock wall scrawled with the number 13. He yelled, smoked the three cigarettes he had, climbed the handrail to find a ceiling hatch locked from the outside.

Auditory hallucinations set in. He had no cell phone or watch.

White takes everything out of his wallet, reads the fine print on Jets tickets he'd never use that weekend, compares a new $20 bill to an old one, takes his shoes off and tries them as a pillow, places his wallet over his eyes to attempt sleep. He urinates down the elevator shaft.

Around him the video shows the building's other elevators undergoing maintenance. It remains unclear why his car, No. 30, went unnoticed.

He was freed that Sunday afternoon and insisted on an escorted service elevator ride upstairs to retrieve his jacket. There, on his computer screen, he found an angry note left by a co-worker who thought he'd be right back.

White filed a $25 million lawsuit against the building's management and the elevator maintenance company. He was let go from his job after failing to show up for eight weeks, and settled four years later for an undisclosed sum — "hardly six figures," he said.

White ran through the money and went without work for months at a time. He now "sells socks" at a sporting goods store. He said he regrets the lawsuit and the decision not to go back to work.

But the 45-year-old White still lives and works in Manhattan, where he can hardly avoid elevators.

"I never have fear," he said, "but I can't forget what happened."'s JoNel Aleccia contributed to this report.