Arlene Bunch flicked on the Val D’isere stovetop. A wall of fire engulfed her. The kitchen cratered through the floor. Bunch, at the epicenter, buried under splintered and snowy debris. And a home gym. Which crushed her left side. And saved her life. “Otherwise, there’d have been just another piece of wood there,” explained Bunch. “There,” meaning her upper body.
She touched her face and lip. “I could just feel it hanging off,” she told me, over the phone, then laughed. She laughed often during the interview. The surface of her lip was torn off. Her chin and scalp and forehead, lacerated.
“And between my eyes,” she said. “Because I have good genetics with skin, my face has really come a long way. I still have burn marks on the sides and stuff, but my chest burnt as well. So, that’s really worse.”
A broken line poured propane into the collapsed condo. She tried to push the beams off her. “But they’re not moving,” she said, “and, ‘Ouch, something hurts…’ So I put my hand on my lower back – buttock – and there was a pole in it.” From the gym. Nearly through her buttock. She felt the blood. It was fluid.
“I hear my son screaming [from his room], ‘Mom, mom! Where are you?’ And I just went into survival mode because I’m a tough girl,” Bunch said. She told her son to call 911. “Trying to say it as loud as I could,” she said. The son doesn’t know where the phone is. Bunch says get Dad’s phone. The son doesn’t know where Dad is.
“My son’s room was crushed, and if he wasn’t lying on his bed waiting for breakfast, then he would have been killed because his wall faces a wall in the room that I was exploded in,” she said.
Bunch hears her son yelling to others, “My Mom’s in there and she’s dying. She’s bleeding.” She hears him get rescued.
“And then, I don’t hear anything for a long time,” she said. 30 or 40 minutes had passed. Her blood had coagulated. “I knew I was in trouble at that point,” Bunch said. “Close to losing consciousness.”
She was covered in glass and lacerations. She started to go to sleep. “It was very peaceful,” she said. “And, it’s funny,” Bunch explained, “because I was thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, all the things I didn’t do!’”
Up until the early morning of March 22, she’d done everything in life. Scuba diving. Skiing. Snowboarding. Skydiving. “I’ve done a lot of fun, risky stuff, but to have that happen to you in your own home … kind of set [me] in this mindset of [I] don’t want to do anything ever again. You could almost die making breakfast.”
Someone called her name. She had no energy to talk. “I took a piece of wood next to me and kept hitting on the beam above me,” she said.
The voices said, “Do it again.”
The voices – first responders – found her. She saw the body cam footage. Her feet peeking through the debris. “I was under 16 feet of snow and roof stuff. Everywhere,” Bunch said. From the pictures her husband took afterward, Bunch “could see this little china doll. The head’s cut off. And there’s blood all over it.”
First responders started removing debris. Which toppled more debris onto Bunch. “They finally got down to me, and I kept telling them, ‘I’m impaled, I’m impaled.’ Because they kept trying to pull me out,” she explained.
They got her out. Her left foot had been crushed. She didn’t know where she was. Her blood pressure was 50 over 40. They put her in an ambulance. She asked if she was going to die. They asked her where she was from. “I know when first responders start asking questions like that, that it’s serious,” she said. In and out of consciousness.
She wakes up in the Renown hospital’s trauma room. Everything was white. Everyone was in white clothes. Bunch wondered if this was heaven. The doctors descended on her. She’d lost so much blood it was hard to find an IV. She realized she was in a hospital. She spent 25 days there. They called her the miracle woman.
She left and spent two weeks in Lone Pine. Wound Care. “I had lacerations on my shins, knees, and upper legs, and they got infected with staph,” she said. “That was horrible, dealing with that. So, I got home and, you know, we don’t have a home. I didn’t have clothes because everything exploded.”
She got donations. A purple-yellow jumpsuit. Extra large. A couple sweat suit outfits from a friend in Newport Beach. Two pairs of shoes.
She’s just now starting to put weight on her foot. She’s learning how to work with her traumatic brain injury. Speech therapy for the stuttering. Burns, healing. “It’s amazing,” Bunch said, “because if the roof didn’t cave in and the snow hadn’t put the fire out, I would’ve pretty much burned to death… What a bizarre situation. No one survives that.”
When everything exploded, Bunch was holding a pan and two eggs. “Those eggs splattered all over my hair and face,” she said. “For weeks they were pulling egg out of my hair.”
Bunch and her family have been living in a spot provided by the Town. That ends at the end of September. They’re looking for a place to live. Bunch is looking for a new job.
“Coming back was just surreal,” she said. “And I still haven’t dealt with those feelings.” One day, on the way to the neurologist, Bunch was singing along to the radio.
She broke down. Sobbing.
“I could do it now, but I’m not going to. I can’t cry over spilled milk. I just gotta move on. It’s bizarre, at my age, to have nothing. Everything I ever had – every picture, every memory… it’s surreal.”
At the end of the interview, Arlene tells me she loves me.
“I tell everyone I love them,” she explained, “because I’m so grateful. That’s my whole new attitude. It’s so bizarre, because I look at everyone, and everyone is so precious – just to be alive, you know? I spend more time talking to strangers… I feel like I’m a brand new baby in a sense of fascination with life itself and people that are alive and, really, where do we go in the end? Is it just that white room? Is it when I fell asleep and it was just peaceful?”
No one knows. Until they do.
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