Darby Canyon Lightning Story

The Story of the Lightning Accident At Darby
Written on 1 August, 1951
By Bethene Richmond

I have been requested by Pres. William J O’Bryant, the President of the Idaho Falls Stake of the L.D.S. Church, to write an account of the experience I had this summer while at Darby Girls’ Camp; at which time four girls and one leader lost their lives when a bolt of lightening struck a group while on a hike. Following is the account….

It was Wednesday, August 1, 1951, the second day of Girls’ Camp for the Idaho Falls Stake. The hike, which was open to all girls except the first year Bee Hive girls, was scheduled to leave at 6:30 a.m. However, it was nearer 7:00 a.m. before we got underway. It was a beautiful morning as we assembled. The sky had been overcast earlier in the morning and there had been a wind storm that lasted for about fifteen minutes between 4:00 and 5:00 a.m. Everyone was filled with anticipation for a lovely day to be spent among the beauties of nature. We each had our lunch and were prepared for an all day hike, first to the Wind Caves, and then after eating our lunch, on to the Ice Caves and then back to camp. As we were waiting for all the girls to assemble, Brother Fred Miller, the scouter who was to be our guide, told us about various types of trees we would see along the way and how we could identify them. He also instructed us about the care of our feet, advising that if anyone felt a tender spot developing to let him know, so that tape could be applied and thus avoid a blister. He also told many other things to add to our enjoyment of the hike.

There were 42 girls from the five wards, Lincoln, Iona, Second, Fifth and Ninth, and three leaders: Sister Rosalie Arave, from Second Ward (Sister Arave had very recently returned from a mission), Ora Holst and myself from Fifth Ward. The girls from the Fifth Ward were Carol Engstrom, Bernice Malone, Merry Dee Severson, Lola Mae Ovard, Carma Rasband, Geraldine Watson, and Rose Marie Jolly. As we left, Brother Miller asked that one of the leaders take the lead, to “set the pace”. Sister Arave did this. Brother Miller spent his time going from the head of the line to the rear to keep a constant watch on the entire group. After twenty minutes we would stop for a rest period, during which time Brother Miller would point out things of interest such as: how the valley was formed, the different rock formations, names of the wild flowers, which grew profusely along the way, the names of birds common to the area and types of moss and lichen.

When we were about half way up to the Wind Cave, one of the girls in the Lincoln Ward became ill and decided to return to camp. The four other girls from Lincoln Ward returned with her. This left thirty-seven girls to continue the hike. As we progressed, Carol Engstrom assumed the position of leader at the head of the line. At one rest period she asked Brother Miller if she could carry his pack (he carries a fifty pound pack, with extra shoes, stockings, first aid equipment, candy, etc.). He jokingly answered, “Sure you can carry it. Maybe it will slow you down a bit.” Carol carried the pack the rest of the way. We three leaders were scattered among the group to help some of the girls who seemed to need a bit of encouragement as the way got steeper. I think they all helped us the most, however.

When we reached the bottom of the falls which comes from the opening of the Wind Caves, we stopped to rest and Brother Miller told us to leave our lunch sacks there, that we would return there to eat our lunch. The climb from there to the cave was almost perpendicular. It was a beautiful sight, the water coming out of the rocks and plunging over the edge to form the beautiful falls. The Wind Cave consists of three rooms, formed in the rock, with the only entrance being a small opening, which we crawled through on our hands and knees. Ora Holst and I were the last ones to enter the rooms of the caves, so as we turned around to come out, we were the first. As we came out, we noted the clouds gathering and remarked that it looked as though we were going to have a shower, but that it was well timed, because by the time we had finished our lunch, we would be able to continue on to the Ice Caves. The girls from the Fifth Ward soon joined us and as we reached the spot where we had left our lunches it started to rain, so we scrambled under the trees for protection from the rain. Our group, Fifth Ward, was under one tree, sitting on the ground and leaning against a fallen tree that was leaning against a standing tree. The rest of the girls were sitting around our group and up the path. Some of the girls were still coming down from the cave and ducked under shelter wherever they could. It rained hard for a few minutes and then it started to hail. About 10 minutes after the storm started, we heard a very loud clap of thunder which sounded like it must have hit above us on the rim. We realized it was too close for comfort, and some suggested that we move. Others said, “No, we’re alright, because all the trees around us are taller than this one”. Some of the girls were frightened and we tried to reassure them and calm their fears. At this time Brother Miller came running down the hill, (he was the last one out of the cave, being certain everyone got out safely) shouting for us to move out into the open space below us. Several started moving. I remember getting up and bending over to pick up my knap sack ---- then it hit!!

The next thing I knew I was down the hill about three yards from the group, all drawn up in a knot, unable to move! The thought went through my head, “I’ve had a stroke!” Then I heard girls screaming, and heard one say, “Look! That girl is on fire!” I looked back up the hill and beheld a picture of horror! It was then that the realization came to me, that we must have been hit by lightening. There was still a glow emitting from the group directly under the tree that reminded me of the halo that is shown around the head of Christ in so many pictures of him. Other girls further up the trail were getting up. About this time Brother Miller, who had been knocked part way down the hill, so that he was nearer to me than to the group under the tree, came up to where I was and asked me what happened. I answered, “I think we’ve been struck by lightening” – he then asked me if I was alright – I said, “Yes, but I’m sure many of the girls are injured. Please help them if you can.”

He immediately went to the girls and started artificial respiration on girls as fast as he could get to them. He also started other girls who were not severely injured, in giving artificial respiration – and sent two who were not injured back to camp for help.

I could not move my right arm or my legs from the knees down, but I pulled myself back up the hill by grasping tall grass and weeds with my left hand and pulled my knees up under me. When I reached the group, I found I could not do artificial respiration, because I did not have the use of my right hand and arm, which were paralyzed for about two hours. I could instruct some of the girls and help in supervision of first aid care. All of the girls were helping in whatever way they could – they were wonderful. It was really a testimony to me to see how they responded in the face of tragedy. Everyone was praying, some aloud and the rest silently.

While preparing to leave for the hike that morning, we had not prayed as a group. Sister Holst and I had noticed this and had wondered if we should mention it to Brother Miller before we left, but decided against it. That was my first thought after the accident and I expressed it to Sister Arave. She replied “As I was coming down the trail at the rear of the group, I felt the Spirit of the Lord so strongly that I went behind a tree by myself and prayed as I have never before, and I have never felt the Spirit of the Lord in so great abundance as then.”

We checked all the girls and tried to revive all of them even though we felt there was no hope for three of them. These were Bernice Malone, Merry Dee Severson, and Sister Holst. We worked with Carol Engstrom and Betty Kearney for some time before we finally gave up – these two were not burned as severely as the others and we felt perhaps they had a chance, but we could get no response.

About this time another group of four or five girls left for camp and help. After we had all the girls breathing, for whom there was any hope, we began checking them for burns, and dressed them until we ran out of first aid supplies. Then Brother Miller moved all the girls down the hill to an open spot where the sun could hit us and give some warmth. Everyone was thoroughly wet and we had nothing to use for extra warmth. Brother Miller built a fire, which helped, but we could not get the girls very close to it because of their burns. Many girls were suffering from shock, but it was necessary to keep them awake, for as soon as they dozed off they would stop breathing again. The next two hours were spent trying to keep everyone awake and breathing and as comfortable as possible – also praying, joking and waiting!

About three o’clock we saw three women coming over the hill toward us. They were a most welcome sight. I’ll never be able to understand how we were able to receive help so quickly. It was about noon when the bolt hit, so it took about three hours for the girls to get back to camp and the three sisters to get back up. They were Sister Eva Ovard, Marie Martin and LeOra Moore. They brought blankets, which we needed badly.

About forty-five minutes later, another group arrived, including Dr. Gordon Jensen, Sheriff Looslie, President Fullmer and several others. They brought stretchers, blankets, and medical supplies. Dr. Jensen checked all the girls again and thought it best for some, the least hurt, to start walking back to camp. Another black cloud had appeared and it looked as though we would all be drenched again. The men left with three girls on stretchers. Very shortly, more men came and they left with two more girls on stretchers. This left just two injured girls. Brother Miller and I stayed with them. We had several blankets now and were able to keep them warm until more help arrived. It was about 6:00 p.m. when we started down with the last two girls on stretchers. President Leigh Fullmer, President of the Teton Stake, remained with the girls whose lives had been taken. We shortly met several men on horseback who continued on, to assist in bringing down the bodies. All along the trail we met more men on horseback, who had come to assist. Again, I’ll never be able to understand how so many could come so quickly to help us.

We were met part way down the hill by a group in a jeep and we rode in the jeep to the ambulance which came as far as it could and was waiting for us. I went to the hospital in Driggs with these last two girls. All of the injured girls had been taken to the hospital in Driggs, where they were checked again carefully by Dr. Jensen. Then some were admitted to the hospital and kept overnight for observation and released the following day. Some required medical care and further hospitalization later, however.

The camp had been evacuated and all the girls were taken to the church house in Driggs. While they were waiting there for transportation home, members of the Driggs M.I.A. and others brought soup and sandwiches and warm, dry clothing to keep everyone comfortable.

It was a very trying experience, made more difficult for me because four of the five who were killed were members of my ward – the Fifth. They were Carol Engstrom, Merry Dee Severson, Bernice Malone and Sister Ora Holst. I knew all of them intimately, and knew their families and home situations. I knew that each family would have added burdens, greater than usual, brought to them by the loss of that member. My greatest concern was for these families, and I had to force thoughts from my mind, so I could continue with those who needed care. I prayed constantly that these families would be blessed with comfort, peace and understanding.

So many wonderful people helped in the rescue, it is impossible to name them all. The sisters who were at camp are to be highly praised for the manner in which the handled this most difficult situation. The Stake leaders in charge of camp were Virgie Prestgard, Lucille Olson, Eva Ovard, Norma Hammond, Jennie Jerman and, and Bessie Bitter. Dr. Jensen, President Fullmer and the many men from the Driggs area, who came to offer assistance, the Teton Stake MIA and so many others who helped were so kind and I shall be forever grateful to all of them for their kindness and help.

This was my first experience in a girls camp. I had worked in M.I.A. for many years, but had never had the opportunity to camp. I felt that I would never again be able to enjoy the out-of-doors or be able to accept the responsibility of a group of young people in any activity. However, as days went by, I realized I could never be happy again if I continued to live with this fear! I knew I had to conquer it! I also knew that best way to conquer fear was to face it – so I became very anxious to return again to the scene of the accident. This opportunity came to me on September 10, 1951, when I accompanied a group to the spot to erect a monument. Through the efforts of Cat Thompson and others in the Fifth Ward and with much help from the people of Darby and Driggs, the monument was erected. Bags of cement were carried up the mountain by pack horses – rocks were carried down stream and the plaque was made by Rasmus Holst, whose wife was one of the victims.

I am grateful I was able to meet this fear and conquer it. I felt the spirit of our Heavenly Father very close, and I now feel a great reverence for this spot instead of the dread I had. I pray that our beautiful Girls Camp will not be abandoned because of this incident. It is my desire to see the camp continue to be developed. I hope that every group of hikers will be taken to that spot and there be told the story of what happened and have the opportunity to feel the Spirit which prevails there. If every girl can have the lesson “LIVE EACH DAY AS THOUGH IT WERE YOUR LAST” impressed upon her at this sacred spot --- it will not have been in vain.
Tragic as this experience was, I can even now see how my life has been enriched by it.

FIRST: I have gained many friendships which I shall always treasure. Among these is Brother Fred Miller, to whom I would like to pay tribute. I know that the knowledge of first aid which Fred possessed, his ability to carry it out in the face of tragedy, and his utter disregard for his own well-being, are directly responsible for the saving of the lives of at least five of the injured girls. He was injured severely and remembers very little of the first few hours. Brother Miller is a most noble leader of youth! I hope I can carry out the lessons in youth leadership which I have learned from him.

SECOND: My testimony in the youth of the church has been greatly strengthened. In working with youth, I have on occasion wondered if out efforts were being wasted --- but never again will I doubt the basic strength and goodness of youth! Their unselfish response – their willingness to serve in whatever way they could – their concern for each other – their faith and their prayers shall forever be a shining example of their goodness.

- Bethene Richmond
Copied by Melanie Sullivan from http://jeannadot.blogspot.com/2009/10/hike-party-and-paintball.html on 7/1/10


The Lightning Strike at Darby Canyon August 1, 1951
Written by Chris Christensen July, 2010 to be read to the
1st Year Girls Camp on July 21, 2010 after hiking the Monument Hike

The account of the accident is taken from witness statements.

It was a beautiful sunny morning when some forty leaders and girls left Darby Camp for a hike to the Wind Caves. Brother Fred Miller was their guide and priesthood leader. About 10:00 they reached the opening of the cave. The opening looked like a huge key hole with a waterfall coming out. The girls left their sack lunches outside and went in to explore the cave. The girls from the 5th Ward came out of the cave and as they were gathering up their lunches it started to rain. They took cover under a tree, sitting on the ground and leaning against the tree. Some girls were sitting in the path and some were just coming down from the caves. It rained hard for a few minutes and then it started to hail. After about 10 minutes they heard a very loud clap of thunder. At that time, Brother Miller came running down from the cave and told them to move to open space. Then the lightening struck. Girls and leaders were thrown all over the hill. Brother Miller was the first to revive and he and several uninjured girls began artificial respiration on girls as fast as they could. Some carried water from the spring and others worked to keep friends alive who had been revived. Two girls went back to camp for help. Everyone was praying – some aloud and some silently.

One witness said she stood up and started walking around when all at once a serene peaceful feeling came over her. She looked up and saw a crowd of people dressed in white. The spirits of the dead girls rose from their bodies one after the other. They wore white dresses and ran about a foot above the ground with outstretched arms towards the crowd of people. Each girl was embraced and hugged by several women dressed in white. Then the scene was gone, but (after hearing the story) I knew without a doubt, that there is life beyond the grave.

Another witness said, “Looking back I know God was on the mountain that day and everything that happened there has been for someone’s good.”

I was at camp and I remember the large bell being rung to call us to the activity tent. When we got there4 they said there had been an accident on the hike and we were going home; to pack everything up including the things belonging to the girls on the hike. We were then taken to the church at Driggs where the Relief Society fed us soup and sandwiches. The badly injured girls were taken to the hospital and the dead were brought down by horses. As soon as word reached Idaho Falls parents started coming to get their girls not knowing if they were dead or alive. No names of the deceased had been released at that time. Later we found out that three girls and a leader from 5th Ward had been killed (Carol Engstrom, Merry Dee Severson, Bernice Malone and Ora Holst, the leader, and Betty Kearney (who was) Carol Engstrom’s best friend from the 9th Ward). Interestingly enough they all came from inactive or part member families. It was a sad but spiritual time.

Merry Dee Severson and I were 13 years old and the only non-baptized girls in our camp. I had promised her that I would go on the hike with her but that morning the feeling was very strong that I shouldn’t go. Had I gone I might have been among the dead. The last thing she said to me was “please put some flowers on my bed.” Did she have a premonition? I don’t know but those are the last words she said to me and I will always remember them.

After the accident I wasn’t sure I wanted to join the church but after much fasting and prayer by myself and others the Spirit was so strong I knew the church was true. I was baptized and later Merry Dee was baptized in the temple. We went on September 8, 1951, back to where the accident occurred and erected a monument. That spot will always be hallowed ground to me.

Did this accident change my life? Oh, yes, it helped make my testimony stronger, increased my love for my Savior and made me realize that I am a daughter of God and He loves me.

Walk tall girls, you are a daughter of God.

- Chris Christensen
Copied by Melanie Sullivan from a handwritten account on 7/22/10


Post Script by Melanie Sullivan:

The July 21, 2010 1st Year Hike was an eerie reminder of this accident as the hike began under gray skies and it began to rain about half way up to the monument. In short order, it began to rain big, heavy drops, then hail, followed by loud claps of thunder and many lightning bolts shooting across the skies. The girls persevered and, though drenched and cold, had a desire to reach the monument. Despite the ominous conditions and everyone’s fears, as a hike leader I had the strong impression from the spirit that no one would be hurt on this hike, but that we would all get extremely wet. I shared this with the girls and it seemed to calm their nerves. Close to the top, Stake President Clayson decided we should turn around and head back down and not risk standing on the open plain at the top by the monument. Though deeply disappointed not to reach the top after all of our efforts, we all agreed and returned to Darby Camp to hear the story written above – grateful for our safety despite the weather.

Pick a New Years' Resolution!