A Journey Through Tragedy And Hope

Writing Out of the Night was an emotional experience for Irene Bennett Dunn, but it was a necessary part of adding closure to a horrific loss in her life. She and her son, Phil, are survivors of the August 17, 1959 Montana-Yellowstone earthquake that claimed 28 lives. Four of those killed were her immediate family members: husband Purley "Pud" Bennett and three of their four children, Carole, Tom and Susan.

Today, at age 78, she lives in Hope with her husband, Jack, a retired dairy farmer who graduated with her from Hope in the class of 1938. They've been married since 1961, about two years after the earthquake. Irene rebuilt her life with the help of Jack, her son, Phil, and a new career, teaching elementary school for 15 years. It's been nearly 40 years since that fateful night, but the healing still continues.

In her new book, just published in May, she wrote, "Tears help cover the pain in the heart, but the scar is ever there."

A significant part of her healing process was returning to the scene of the massive landslide caused by the earthquake near Ennis, Mont., on the banks of the Madison River. She traveled with family to the site in the summer of 1995. Managing to get through the presentation at the Interpretive Center was difficult, particularly when the narration covered the Bennett family.

"Fortunately, I didn't fall apart as I'd feared," Irene wrote.

Taking the trip to the earthquake site not only helped her release emotions, it helped her do the research necessary to finish writing her book, Out of the Night.

While she's managed attain happiness again, it's been a long road to recovery. The Bennett family was the typical, ideal family of the '50s when they went on a family vacation to Yellowstone Park. They lived in Dalton Gardens near Coeur d'Alene. Irene was a full-time, devoted mother. Pud worked as a truck driver for Atlas Building Center. Their oldest daughter, Carole, was about to begin her senior year of high school, and the youngest, Susan, was about to start first grade. Tom was 11, and Phil was 16.

That night as the Bennetts slept in the Rock Creek Campground on the Madison River just outside Yellowstone National Park, one of North America's most destructive earthquakes ­ it measured 7.5 on the Richter scale ­ hit at 11:37 p.m. The 7,600-foot mountain above their campground was unsettled, creating a massive landslide that unloaded 80 tons of rock and soil, damming the Madison River and creating a new lake. Irene and Phil were rescued from the dry riverbed the next morning. She learned of her husband's death before she was transported to the hospital in Ennis, Mont. The bodies of her other family members were found, painfully, one at a time during her long recuperation at the hospital.

After she and Phil returned home, Irene entered college at nearly 40 years old with the aim becoming a teacher. Phil graduated from high school later studied computer science and went to work for Boeing in Seattle. He married and had three daughters. As for the loss of her family members, Irene says, "We'll never forget them, but we'll go on with our lives with the family we've got. We are a family again."

- Billie Jean Plaster

Out of the Night is available in local bookstores or can be ordered by mail, by calling Keokee Co. Publishing at 208/263-3573 or e-mailing at info@keokee.com.

 

 

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