A woman who survived after being trapped on a backcountry road near Crowsnest Pass in southern Alberta last weekend with friends — a husband and wife from her hometown — says she will always be grateful for the heroic effort of Franklin Kuehn, who died trying to save them.
'He left to save us.' — Lorraine Berreth said about Franklin Kuehn
Lorraine Berreth huddled with her friend Lynn Kuehn in the cold SUV after it got stuck Sunday, praying she would soon see some headlights, emergency lights — anything in the dark.
She hoped Lynn's 71-year-old husband Franklin had found help after setting out on foot hours earlier.
"That's all I could think of — yellow flashing lights," Berreth said Wednesday, choking back tears.
"I thought Franklin would be hanging on the road grader or something, you know, all smiles and 'I'm back. We're going to be OK."'
But by the time the sun came up Lynn, 69, and Berreth, 66, realized he may have died somewhere out in the wilderness and no one was coming to the rescue.
RCMP confirmed they found the man's body Monday morning on the side of a road accessible only by snowmobile near Kananaskis Road, just east of the boundary with British Columbia.
It appears he had trudged about 15 kilometres through heavy snow, then curled up and fallen asleep. Mounties believe he died of hypothermia.
Berreth, back in her rural home near the tiny community of Granum, Alta., talked about how the afternoon drive out with friends turned deadly, and how she'll always consider Franklin a hero.
She said police told her they picked up a signal on Franklin's cellphone, which helped them find his body and later locate the two women.
She might not have survived had it not been for the man, she said. "He left to save us."
Kuehns married 51 years
Franklin was a retired farmer and truck driver who also once worked as a foreman for Granum's public works office, said Berreth. He was active but had some health problems, including bad knees and feet.
He and his wife, married 51 years, often included Berreth, whose husband had been killed in a plane crash, on their outings. Last Sunday, they dropped by her house to take her for supper in nearby Coleman.
It was a beautiful, sunny day and Franklin suggested they take some scenic back roads.
They never considered telling anyone where they were going, said Berreth.
Franklin was driving a four-wheel drive GMC Jimmy, but it got stuck once it got onto a forestry road that hadn't been cleared. Franklin usually carried a shovel, but for some reason it wasn't in the vehicle.
He tried rocking the vehicle back and forth and kicking snow out from the tires, but nothing worked. They tried using their cellphones, but had no service.
"He was so mad at himself," said Berreth. "He knew we were stranded and could die."
Wearing only a leather jacket and slip-on shoes with the backs cut out, he decided to walk for help. Berreth explained he had broken both heels earlier and often customized his shoes to make them more comfortable.
The two women sat in the vehicle overnight, sipping water and nibbling on granola bars, turning the ignition once in awhile for heat.
They talked about news stories of other people who had survived after being stranded in stuck vehicles for days. They hoped they would too.
By 10 a.m., fearing Franklin was dead, Berreth told her friend they should start walking too, since no one knew where they were.
Women decide to search for help
Lynn also had a bad knee and didn't have her inhaler for asthma. Wearing light jackets and sneakers and high-heeled boots, they set out stepping into the footprints Franklin had made the day before.
They had made it about five kilometres when searchers on snowmobiles came across their path.
"I said, 'Oh, thank God.' I didn't think we were going to make it."
Berreth said they were warmed up with blankets and offered sandwiches and energy drinks. Then an RCMP officer delivered the bad news.
"He said, 'There's no easy way to tell you this, Mrs. Kuehn, but we found your husband's body."'
Berreth said the officer explained that the three had been reported missing by friends and family, who had checked their phone and bank records. No one had a clue where they were.
Two off-duty firefighters on snowmobiles found Franklin's body and RCMP identified him as one of the missing seniors after tracking his cellphone signal to the area.
Searchers kept looking and found the women, freezing and exhausted but in relatively good shape.
Berreth said an officer chastised them for not following the golden safety rule: never leave your vehicle. But he also conceded searchers may never have found them otherwise.
"He told us, 'If we hadn't picked up [Franklin's] cellphone ping ... chances are we would have found your bodies, too."