Child’s death deepens avalanche grief

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The small resident community on Norway’s Arctic archipelago of Svalbard was mourning the death on Monday of the child who was critically injured in Saturday’s avalanche in Longyearbyen. The death toll thus rose to two, but shocked residents were told some may be able to return to their evacuated homes later in the day.

The child, a two-old girl named Nikoline, died on Sunday at the University Hospital of Northern Norway in Tromsø, which had taken in four seriously injured residents of Longyearbyen who’d been trapped in their homes when the avalanche crashed into them. The other victim was 42-year-old Atle Kjartan Husby, oridinally from Ås in Akershus, south of Oslo. Husby was found buried under the snow and lifeless by rescue workers, and declared dead at the local hospital in Longyearbyen early Saturday afternoon.

‘Very difficult’
Kjerstin Askholt, who as sysselmann on Svalbard is the Arctic island group’s highest-ranking local official, said it was a “very difficult message to receive” that the child “whom so many worked so intensively to save” had died. Both children who were seriously injured in the avalanche, Nikoline and her three-year-old sister Pernille, were the subjects of “an amazing effort” to get them out of their buried and destroyed house. Pernille, whose last name has not been released, has been listed in serious but stable condition at the hospital in Tromsø. The parents of the two children sent a letter to local officials on Svalbard on Monday, thanking them for all the help they had received.

Neighbours were also mourning the death of Husby, who worked as a teacher at the Longyearbyen School and was active in the small town’s cultural circles, with choirs and music. He had lived on Svalbard since 2008 and was well-known on the island of Spitsbergen.

“This is such a small community, where everyone knows everyone,” Eirik Berger, vice mayor on Svalbard, told state broadcaster NRK Sunday night. “Atle was a very well-liked man here in Longyearbyen.”

‘Extra dark’ time of the year
Local pastor Leif Magne Helgesen told residents gathered for a community meeting Sunday evening said that the avalanche that followed a severe storm “makes this dark time of the year extra dark.” The sun disappeared below the horizon several weeks ago and won’t reappear until later in the winter.

“Here everyone was supposed to be concentrating on the end of school and Christmas, and then this happens,” Helgesen said. The island has also been facing economic uncertainty because of financial troubles at Svalbard’s largest employer, the local but controversial coal mining operation.

NRK reported few dry eyes at the meeting. “At the same time, there are many smiles and good stories among the tears, and good hugs,” Helgesen said. “We have a lot of work ahead of us to secure homes, but also to ensure the fellowship we have.”

Evacuees being cleared to return home
Askholt thanked residents for the massive rescue effort that included any volunteers who spontaneously started digging through the mounds of snow that buried and destoyed 10 houses. Around 180 people remained under evacuation orders Sunday night, fully 10 percent of the city’s population.

There were reports early Monday that some residents would be able to return to their homes later in the day. Experts from Norges Geotekniske Institutt noted that mountainsides had become more stable and the weather had improved, and the threat of more avalanches had been reduced.

They also said it was “difficult” to say why Saturday’s avalanche was so powerful, and hard to predict. They noted, however, that as many as two- to three meters of snow had landed on the slopes of the mountains “in a very short period of time,” during the severe storm late last week. The snow under that was unstable, and the huge amounts of new snow is what ultimately broke off and crashed down the mountainside.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund