Stormy memories: Hundreds gather to remember losses, celebrate life one year after historic avalanche


Gathering at a site where fresh snow on an empty field and calm weather were striking contrasts to the vast wreckage and storms exactly one year ago, hundreds of residents and visitors relived a multitude of memories and placed scores of torches in the snow Monday night where an avalanche destroyed 11 homes and killed two people on Dec. 19, 2015.

The one-year anniversary observation offered memorials for Atle Husby, 42, and Nikoline Røkenes, 2, the victims killed in the avalanche. Speakers also talked about the short- and long-term scars left, include the large open space where the homes once stood, the grief of those who lost their possessions and loved ones, and the uncertainty of many residents who’ve since been told they live in unsafe areas.


Svalbard Church Priest Leif Magne Helgesen, center, participates in a torchlight procession Monday to the site an an avalanche last Dec. 19 that destroyed 11 homes and killed two people. Photo by Mark Sabbatini | Icepeople.

“It ended tragically,” said Svalbard Church Priest Leif Magne Helgesen. “We lost that we can not afford to lose. We lost Nikoline and Atle. Our thoughts go especially to those ones closest who bear the heaviest burdens.”

But the anniversary is also a time to remember the efforts of rescuers, residents who provided food and comfort, and a community that draw closer together in the wake of the tragedy, Helgesen said.

“This is a celebration of life,” he said. “We celebrate all that was saved.”

Those directly affected by the tragedy are also again finding themselves in the public spotlight as numerous media organizations from Norway and abroad have arrived in Longyearbyen to cover the occasion during the past few days.


Two television crews offer commentary during the one-year memorial gathering of the avalanche last Dec. 19 outside Kulturhuset on Monday. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

“The good that has come out of this is the strengthening of solidarity,” said Eva Grøndal, among those who was in one of the destroyed homes and survived, in an interview with NRK. “Among friends we have formed alliances in case of new evacuations. It’s great that we have achieved a kind of buddy system where it is clear where we can move to if something happens. I trust also now that we have an apparatus around us that can alert us if something happens. We didn’t have that a year ago.”

The gathering started outside Kulturhuset where the Store Norske Men’s Choir, which Husby was a member of, performed before those present lit torches and walked a few hundred meters to the avalanche sute at Vei 230. Helgesen, Svalbard Gov. Kjerstin Askholt and State Secretary Gjermund Hagesæther delivered speeches before a minute of silence for the victims was observed.


Longyearbyen Mayor Arild Olsen and Svalbard Gov. Kjerstin Askholt lead the torchlight procession to the avalanche site at Vei 230 on Monday. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

“There are many and strong feelings and stories connected the catastrophe that hit the little community last Dec. 19,” Askholt said. “Grief over those we lost, the joy of those who were rescued, shock, anger, despair, disbelief. All that we have lived with the past year year and we have to live on with for a while.”

Longyearbyen Mayor Arild Olsen ended the memorial by laying flowers for the victims next to the torches along the snowbank. Many gathered for coffee and pastries afterward at the Rabalder Café and Bakery where the event originated, and Helgesen and others  who offered counseling after the avalanche stayed at the church much of the evening to talk to those wishing to do so.

There was concern late last week the memorial would be forced indoors due to a storm expected to bring heavy precipitation and strong winds – although considerably less severe than the storm that hit during the hours before the avalanche. But the storm weakened heavily, leaving behind several centimeters of heavy snow and sleet before subsiding just before the gathering.

Storms in recent days have resulted in the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate elevating its risk rating for the Longyearbyen area on Monday to “significant” (the third-highest of five ratings) due to fresh drifting snow and weak underlying layers.The anniversary also comes a few days after a report from the agency declared more than 150 residences and dorms in 34 buildings are in avalanche danger zones, which is likely to lead to protective measures or relocation of people living in those areas.