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How One Church Member Survived a Plane Crash and 49 Days in the Yukon Wilderness "by the Grace of God"

Ralph Flores was waiting to deplane a flight in San Francisco when he saw a man struggling to get his luggage off the rack. As he went to help him, the stranger warmly and excitedly greeted him. Ralph had never seen this man before, but the man insisted he knew him, saying, “I never forget a face. I met you in Fairbanks, Alaska.”

After this strange encounter in December 1959, Ralph couldn’t shake the pull he felt to leave his established home in San Francisco and explore new possibilities and opportunities in Alaska. 

Ralph was a pilot and spent the next few months mapping out routes to potential Alaskan destinations. In 1960, he set out on an expedition to Alaska in the hopes of finding a way to move there with his family. After exploring with little luck, he found himself low on money and searching for a job when he came across a home in Fairbanks with a “room for rent” sign out front. He knocked on the door and was warmly greeted by the Zurligen family, who were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Lois Jorgensen, a young member of the Zurligen family at the time, recalls Ralph’s initial visit to their home and says he immediately bonded with their family. Just minutes after meeting Ralph, Leo Zurligen took him to a small auto shop in town and introduced him to the staff saying, “This is my old friend Ralph, and he’s a great mechanic,” according to Leo’s son, Lee.

After staying with the Zurligens and securing a job with the auto shop, Ralph was ready for his wife, Teresa, and six children to join him in Alaska. Teresa wasn’t thrilled about leaving her life in the city, but Ralph strongly felt that they needed to make the move. He told her, “I just really feel like we need to come out here. I don’t know why.” Their move to Fairbanks was only the beginning of what would be an incredible adventure.

Converting to the Church

Leo was a recent convert to the Church when Ralph stayed in his home, and he was excited to share his newfound religion. Ralph agreed to meet with the missionaries, despite his wife’s concerns about letting them into their home.

As the missionaries taught Ralph about the Church, he was concerned for his family and wanted more than anything to lead them in the right direction, Ralph’s daughter, Lisa, explained in an interview with LDS Living. So when the missionaries gave him a copy of the Book of Mormon and asked him to read it and pray about whether it was true, he took the invitation seriously.

Ralph would go to his tiny basement and read the Book of Mormon when the missionaries left after lessons. One night during his studies, he prayed and asked Heavenly Father whether it was true and if he should lead his family to the Church. Ralph had never been a religious man before, Lisa says, but his powerful confirmation of the Book of Mormon was enough to convince him that the gospel was true.

“He was down there praying and the room basically filled with light and then kind of diminished slowly,” Lisa says. “It was an answer to him and to his prayer that what he was praying about was right.” When he went upstairs, Ralph was silent as Teresa asked where he had been. After a few moments, he tearfully told her, “I’ve been praying and asking God to know what we’ve been learning is true. I’ve been reading the Book of Mormon.” He continued to tell her of the experience he had and later announced to the family that he was getting baptized in December 1960.

Teresa’s first response to Ralph’s news was, “What about me?” He said, “You don’t have to join, but I would not be a man if I did not follow through on what I now know to be true." She still didn’t quite believe the Church was true, but she believed in doing things as a family and agreed to get baptized. However, experiences leading up to and after her baptism confirmed that she made the right choice. One of these experiences took place the day before the baptism. She was a heavy smoker and wanted to have a last cigarette and cup of coffee “in peace” before her baptism, so she sat alone in her bedroom to indulge one last time. Lisa said, “Before it was even over, it had lost its flavor and she never looked back.”

Teresa felt another confirmation when she exited the church building after being baptized. She had yet to see the Northern Lights while living in Alaska, but after her baptism, she walked out and “the whole sky was on fire.” Lisa explains, “It was just so overwhelming to her and impressed in her heart and her mind that she had done the right thing and that it was a good decision for the family.”

The Flores and Zurligen families only lived in Alaska for a short time, but both later realized they needed to be there so the Flores family could hear the gospel. “It was almost like both of us went there to find each other and then we went back [to California]. It was kind of weird how it all came about,” Lee told LDS Living. Lisa adds, “According to my parents, basically they had to be rooted up from California where they had a whole network of friends and family and everybody else or they would have never given the missionaries the time of day. They had to end up in Alaska where they knew no one . . . to be able to even listen.”

Stranded in the Yukon Wilderness

Ralph’s small but ever-growing testimony of God’s power saved his life three years later when he was in a tragic plane crash in February 1963.

Ralph's family moved back to California due to the harsh Alaskan conditions, but he stayed behind and started working for the DEW (Distant Early Warning) line in the Arctic region. He was planning a trip to visit his family when Helen, a 21-year-old world traveler looking for a ride to the Bay Area, agreed to share the travel expenses. Shortly after the unlikely pair departed on their journey to San Francisco, they found themselves in a severe snowstorm that blew them off course. A series of events led the plane to hit a tree, and then it plummeted to the ground.

From the time the plane went down to the moment they were rescued, Ralph was guided by the Spirit and felt sustained by the power of God. He knew his only chance of survival was following exactly what the Spirit prompted him to do at all times, and his obedience brought numerous miracles during their 49 days in the Yukon wilderness.

One of the first miracles happened soon after the plane crashed. Helen and Ralph regained consciousness after the impact and realized they were in bad condition. They both had multiple broken bones and neither had medical training, but Ralph was guided by the Spirit on how to set his broken cheekbone and Helen's broken arm. Ralph managed to push his cheekbone into place and wrap it in a sweater. It was so cold that the sweater froze with blood and turned into a cast. “When they were rescued, his jaw and cheekbone were back where they should have been. All he had was a little scar above his lip,” Lisa says.

There were many other miracles Ralph experienced as he listened to the Spirit. He was prompted to boil the snow twice before drinking it, not knowing why, but later found out there were harmful minerals in the snow that could only be removed by boiling it twice. He was guided in how to take care of his frostbite, and despite enduring below freezing temperatures that could make metal snap, he was rescued with all of his fingers and toes intact. But possibly the most touching miracles happened just shortly before they were rescued.

Ralph was a man of few words and didn’t often speak boldly. So when he invited Helen to read the Bible, it was out of character but absolutely necessary for their survival and rescue. Ralph had a copy of the Bible on the plane, and although Helen was Jewish, he felt prompted to tell her that they would not be rescued until she read the Bible cover to cover. A plane spotted their “SOS” stamped in the snow and brought rescuers to their aid the morning after she read the last page.

"SOS" stamped in the snow when Ralph and Helen were rescued. Photo courtesy of the Flores family.

“When they were rescued . . . he stood up to go toward them, and he literally took two steps and he felt that the power that had been sustaining him from the time they crashed—literally in mid steps—he could feel it leave his body from his feet all the way up to his head. Then he collapsed and they had to help him stand up,” Lisa says.

Two men helping Ralph out of the Yukon. Photo courtesy of the Flores family.

Alive by the Grace of God

While Ralph was stranded in the Yukon wilderness, his family didn’t truly believe he was dead. His teenage daughters were especially faithful during the time their dad was missing, and after the search was called off, one of his daughters, Clara, actually wrote a letter to President Kennedy pleading him to continue the search. The disappearance was national news at this point, and President Kennedy responded after Ralph was found saying, “It’s good to know in these days and times that miracles still exist.” 

Ralph's family waiting to hear from him on the phone. Photo courtesy of the Flores Family.

This incredible story changed the Flores’ lives forever. “A lot of us go by faith,” Lisa says. “Certainly, he [Ralph] had to go by faith the whole time. He didn’t know if he was going to be rescued or not. But he knew that if he didn’t do exactly what he was told, there was no chance they were getting rescued.” She continues, “It has never been a question for me that the gospel is true, and that miracles continue to happen and they can happen to individuals. . . . [Heavenly Father] knows who we are individually.”

Ralphs family greeting him at the San Francisco airport. Photo courtesy of the Flores family.

As Ralph’s story circulated in the news, his claim that he and Helen were saved by God’s grace never wavered. “If you were to read the articles the day after they got rescued, a week after they got rescued, a month after they got rescued, a year . . . 20 years . . . the story never changes. They were only alive by the grace of God,” Lisa says. Ralph’s faith in God and his love for the Church never faltered, and the day before he passed away, he reminded his family of what was most important to him.

Ralph was in the hospital with a heart condition but had a strong mind until his last days on earth. When the doctors would enter his hospital room and ask who he was and where he was, he always had the right answers. But he said something different the day before he passed away in 1997. Lisa recalls, “[The nurses] went in and asked, ‘Do you know who you are? What’s your name?’ and he said, ‘Ralph Flores.’ . . . They then asked, ‘Do you know where you are?’” Lisa wasn’t sure whether he heard the question wrong or felt inspired, but he proudly proclaimed, “Yes, I’m a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

“What two things do you know before you go on to the next life? You know your name, which is important, and you know who you are, which is a member of God’s Church on this earth,” Lisa says. “He knew who he was and never changed.”

Ralph’s incredible story was made into a book and movie, Hey, I’m Alive, and inspired many. However, the lesser-known story of his conversion and faith in God is the true miracle and impacted everyone involved. Lois Jorgensen, daughter of Leo Zurligen, recalls the impact of this story in her own life and in her kids’ lives.

“My own children have heard this rescue story many times growing up,” Lois writes. “We have compared it to the many people we have found that were stranded in the deepest snow drifts of life and how we have rescued them from despair and abandonment. Sharing the gospel has been the tool we can all use to help others as they wander. . . . When we rescue those lost to the world we will find our lives blessed in so many ways.”

She adds, “[Ralph] was supposed to live and raise his family in the gospel’s teachings. He was not meant to die as he walked for days in the waist-deep snow.”

Thank you to Lois Jorgensen for making us aware of this story.

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