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2 Lives Lost, 1 Spared in Struggles With Nature : Diary Tells of Couple’s Icy Death in Wilderness

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

A 68-year-old woman, trapped with her husband in a snowbound automobile in the Sierra for more than two weeks, wrote a note to her children shortly before she died:

“Your father passed away,” wrote Nada Jean Chaney, who had recently moved to the mountains from Santa Clarita. “It was very peaceful. His last words were, ‘Thank the Lord.’ ”

The bodies of the woman and her 75-year-old husband, Kenneth, who became stranded in a March snowstorm when they took a wrong turn while driving home from Fresno, were found nine days ago by a U.S. Forest Service crew.

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Authorities investigating the mountain tragedy uncovered a detailed journal written on scraps of paper by the Chaneys during their weeks of isolation, apparently as they slowly starved and froze. It contains poems, reflections, funeral instructions and an account of the passing days, during which a series of snowstorms pounded the 6,700-foot-high mountain road where they were stuck, piling drifts up to 10 feet deep.

Most of all, according to Jayne Peterson, a daughter who lives in Palmdale, the writings show not only a strong religious faith but a deep bond between the husband and wife that allowed them to face the fact that they might not survive.

“They didn’t have a fear of death,” said Peterson.

Peterson said her parents bought a house in Mariposa, in the foothills of the Sierra, in January. Madera County sheriff’s officials said the couple were reported missing on Feb. 27, the day they set out for home after a business trip to Fresno.

“They took a way they had never been before,” Peterson said. “They missed the turn and went into the high elevations and got stuck in the snow.”

Peterson said there were signs they tried to turn the car around on the two-lane, paved Forest Service road, but failed. As the snow began falling heavily, they bundled up in a blanket and apparently tried to wait out the foul weather.

Kenneth Judd, a U.S. Forest Service fire captain who discovered the bodies May 1, said there were plastic food containers in the car. He also said there were indications that they had gotten out of the car more than once, but nothing to show they tried to hike out. The nearest town, a small community named North Fork, was 54 miles away.

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They apparently tried to stay warm with the blanket and by using the car heater. Judd said the car was out of gas when it was found and there was a spot behind the tailpipe where snow had been melted away, indicating the engine had been running. But Madera County authorities said it was clear they “were not prepared” for rugged weather.

As the time passed, the Chaneys began keeping their journal, which has now been turned over to their children. One official called it “more or less a daily account of their predicament.”

Peterson said there was no indication of growing desperation in the writing by either the husband or wife. In fact, they appeared to draw some strength from their plight.

“No matter what the outcome of this situation, we would not have missed this experience for anything,” wrote Nada Jean Chaney. According to Peterson, they used their tragedy as a means to become closer to each other.

If they were waiting for rescue, it was in vain. Judd said signs are posted in the area warning that the road is not maintained in the winter. Nonetheless, Judd said, the road had been cleared to within two or three miles of the snowbound car several weeks before the bodies were discovered to allow Forest Service tree planting crews to work in the area.

Kenneth Chaney died after 18 days, Peterson said. His wife wrote in the journal to her children that his passing was so peaceful she was not even aware of it when it came. It was not known when Nada Jean Chaney died, but she wrote in the journal that she expected to be with him soon, Peterson said.

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Judd was part of a four-man crew that was measuring the depth of the snow when they came upon the Chaneys’ 1980 Thunderbird. It was turned sideways in the road, facing north. He got out and dusted snow off the windshield and saw the bodies in the front seat.

Roy Broomfield, chief deputy coroner for Madera County, said the cause of death is pending but said it is expected that it will be listed as hypothermia.

Services were held Tuesday in Santa Clarita.

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