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Cathy Free: Plagas have a story for the ages

Pat and Gean Plaga were an hour into a poker game with two other couples at a rented cabin near Yellowstone National Park on Aug. 17, 1959, when things got a little livelier than they'd planned.

Twenty minutes before midnight, the walls started to shake, the lights began to flicker and poker chips, cards and cocktails suddenly slid from the table to the floor. A loud roar was heard outside as Gean, a coach at West High School, raced to the front door.

"He flung the door open and it was like a hurricane outside," recalls Pat. "Gean shouted, 'We've got to get out of here — now!' None of us knew what was going on, but we knew it wasn't good. We ran immediately to the car."

The Plagas and their friends didn't realize they were at ground zero of one of the most powerful earthquakes ever recorded in the United States. But they found out soon enough.

A tourist who was stopping traffic on the narrow highway above their cabin told them they'd have to wait in their car on a small plateau with several other motorists. "It's a quake," he said. "The road is blocked in both directions."

"We sat in the car in a rainstorm all night, with the ground shaking all around us," says Pat. "I cried and cried, thinking I'd never see my son again. He was 18 months old and I'd left him in Salt Lake with my sister so Gean and I could take a vacation. That night was the longest of my life."

As the sun rose, Pat wept for another reason: She was lucky to be alive.

The 7.5 quake in Montana's Madison River Canyon had triggered a massive landslide, sending 80 million tons of rock crashing down on campgrounds, the highway and into the river. Dozens of tourists were injured, hundreds were trapped and 28 people were killed. The land under Hebgen Lake had tilted upward, flooding cabins on the north shore with a wall of water and cracking the dam.

Miraculously, the dam held, but the damage was so immense that boulders blocked the flow of the Madison River, forming a new lake, later named Earthquake Lake.

On Aug. 17, the U.S. Forest Service will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the disaster at a visitors center that looks out on the destruction. But Pat Plaga doesn't plan to be there. "I've only been back once, and it was very unsettling," she says. "It's something you can never forget."

Pat, now 77 and living in Millcreek, met me for a Free Lunch of chicken salad and iced tea at Applebee's to recall the poker game that ended in a race to save lives.

She and Gean, who died three years ago, had served up some of their "secret recipe" spaghetti and were enjoying a late night with friends Don and Joan Hogan and relatives Terry and Joanne Bowns, on the first night of what was to be a one-week vacation.

"Our cabin was just below the dam, where my husband loved to fish," she says. "The Madison River was his favorite place — we went every year."

The morning after the earthquake, when the couples climbed out of Terry Bowns' station wagon, they were stunned by the devastation. "It was like a war zone," says Pat. Rescuers brought survivors to the plateau so that helicopters could take them to area hospitals.

"One man had his arm torn off and another had spent the night in a tree, hanging onto his wife so she wouldn't be swept away," recalls Pat. "Everybody they brought up was very quiet. They were in shock."

While Gean Plaga hurried to help rescuers carry survivors on stretchers, Pat helped Joanne, a former nurse's aide, wrap people in blankets and dole out aspirin and comforting words. After road workers had completed a temporary road around a house-sized boulder, the couples drove to Bozeman to spend the night in a college dorm with other survivors.

When a photographer from Life magazine asked if anybody had vacation film they'd care to lend, Gean emptied his camera. A photo ran in the Aug. 31, 1959, issue of the Plagas and their friends enjoying that memorable spaghetti dinner.

"The power of nature is an incredible thing," says Pat, leafing through a yellowed book filled with black-and-white photos of the disaster. "I never want to experience something like this again, but I will say this: It's certainly been a story to tell the grandkids."

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