The safety of civilization after 19 days of struggling to live in the tangled mountain wilderness of central Idaho could not ease the painful ordeal for Brent Dyer, 25, and his 18year-old sister-in-law, Donna Johnson. With the physical dangers behind them, the two Estevan, Saskatchewan, survivors of a light airplane crash had to grapple last week with the anguish of revealing to the world the ghastly facts of their adventure—and reliving the horror of having eaten parts of Donna Johnson’s dead father, Don, in order to stay alive.
The saga, from the moment they crashed May 5 until they walked up to a small silver mine May 24, was mixed with the joy of their survival, tempered by the death of Don Johnson and pilot Norm Pischke, and shrouded in mystery. Attempts by scandal sheets, radio
and TV reporters to get the remarkable story all failed as the families involved steadfastly refused to make any statements despite the rumors of cannibalism. In fact, the hostility developed toward the media and the secrecy created uneasiness in the people of Estevan (population, 9,500) who, ironically, by the day the two reached safety, had pledged more than $10,000 to keep the search going. There was no break in the silence until six days after they had reached safety when both Pischke, 35, and Johnson, 50, had been buried.
And then, at a remarkable press conference in which the reporters were outnumbered by lawyers, family members and a priest, Dyer choked out the incredible tale. With Will Chabun, 24, of the Regina Leader-Post taking shorthand notes and Gary Doyle of Estevan radio station CJSL tape-recording every Word, Dyer revealed how he and Miss Johnson had survived by eating the thighs of her father’s body after crashing in Idaho’s White Cloud Mountains.
As he lay dying, Johnson gave his leather coat to Donna as protection against the cold. “He’s dead, but he wants us to live,” Dyer recalls saying to Donna (who was not at the press conference). “And he’s given us his leather coat. I knew there was nothing else I could do... just let her have a good cry.” The couple had exhausted a small supply of chocolate bars, candies, potato chips, cough drops and a soft drink that they had resolved to “make last forever.” They had also been forced to drink their own urine until Dyer was able to start a fire and melt some snow. Dyer wouldn’t specify when the decision to cannibalize Miss Johnson’s father was made, but he said they both agreed that Johnson’s decision to give his coat to his daughter was a signal that he wanted them to survive: “It was right. We talked to God and we prayed. And whatever else came back, we knew we had to eat him and we did.”
They then set out on a five-day, 17mile walk from the crash site to the Livingston Silver Mine, about 45 miles from Challis, Idaho. The mine owner’s son recoiled at the sight of the human wrecks as they approached. “But,” said Dyer, “he said, ‘You’re the Canadians,’ and I just fell into his arms.”
A late-night phone call from Estevan lawyer Dennis Ball to Ivor Williams, editor of the Leader-Post, signalled the beginning of the final chapter. Ball said that Dyer was willing to tell the entire story provided he was allowed approval of the article before publication. “My view was if we didn’t agree to the conditions, we may never have been told the story, and with all the rumors flying
around it was better to get the facts in the interest of the survivors and the general public,” Williams told Maclean’s. The decision came, Ball said, after being “deluged by calls” for the story from “countless” publications. Ball said that some of the overtures made it apparent there could be monetary rewards for the story, although there were never any specific offers made. He said he decided to go to the Leader-Post because he had “met and respected” Williams, because it was the only daily newspaper in the area and because he thought Williams would have proper understanding of the emphasis the story should have.
The Leader-Post then dispatched reporter Chabun who, along with Doyle, heard Dyer give a two-hour account of the real-life nightmare. Chabun described the scene in the home of Estevan lawyer George Hill as more touching than tense. He took 30 pages of notes and at one point, when he looked up from his note-taking, he saw Hill weeping. The religious experience to which Dyer referred throughout the interview, Chabun said, was something with which he could identify. He realized the emotional situation he faced when he walked into the room for the interview. “I was nervous. I said some prayers to myself before I went in,” Chabun says. “I’m a religious guy myself.”
On the day the story was released, Williams said, he received calls from two British papers, The National Enquirer and another publication in New York for more details than what The Canadian Press had circulated. He refused, saying: “I don’t want to make a nickel out of the story. I just want to live up to our commitments of publishing it.”
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