A landslide slammed into the wall of 10-year-old Palmer Charles’ West Anchorage bedroom last week, leaving her with a concussion and upending normal life for her family.
The experience feels surreal, and the family is just beginning to recover from the shock, said Tanisha Charles, Palmer’s mother.
“This has been a very trying time,” she said. “You don’t prepare for this. You think of fires, you think of earthquakes, but you never think of a mudslide in the middle of town.”
On Sept. 8, Palmer was sitting on her bed talking on the phone with a friend when a loud, roaring noise filled her family’s apartment around 9 p.m.
The thundering sound alarmed Tanisha and her husband, Melvin Charles, who were in separate rooms. They said they wanted to make sure their children were safe before figuring out what happened.
When they went to check on Palmer in her bedroom, the door wouldn’t open. Their daughter didn’t respond to them, so Melvin Charles began jimmying the lock to get inside, he said. He quickly realized the door wasn’t locked — it was blocked from the inside, he said.
“That’s when the real initial panic set in,” Melvin Charles said. “What is this huge thing on the other side of my daughter’s door taking up space and not allowing her to talk?”
When he pushed the door open, he and his wife saw a flood of debris — thick mud caked with tree branches and rocks had spilled into the room where the wall had caved in, scattering drywall among crushed furniture and toys.
They said they saw Palmer’s legs sticking out from the metal bunk bed frame. Melvin Charles said he pulled his daughter out from under drywall that had fallen on her, and he carried her out of the room while Tanisha Charles pushed back on the door to keep it open. Palmer had been knocked unconscious during the landslide, he said.
The family rushed out of the building and Tanisha Charles called 911. Neighbors at the Ladera Villa Apartments began to filter out of the building as they heard commotion outside. Most had no idea a landslide had struck, Tanisha Charles said.
As they sat in the apartment complex’s courtyard, Palmer began to regain consciousness and realize what had happened, her parents said.
First responders, engineers and nonprofit organizations started to arrive. Palmer was evaluated by medics, and her parents said she sustained a concussion, along with many scrapes and bruises.
People from the 13 occupied apartments were displaced for the night. It was dark outside when the landslide happened, Tanisha Charles said, and it wasn’t until the next day that they were able to see the extent of the damage.
The landslide was triggered by a waterlogged field behind North Star Elementary School that fire officials said sent water down the hill and eventually caused the ground to release and slam into the apartment building below. The slide happened during a powerful burst of rain that fell amid weeks of seemingly constant downpour throughout the city. This August was one of the rainiest in Anchorage’s recorded history.
The Charles family stayed at a local hotel for the first few nights. They said they were able to return to their apartment to salvage some belongings. Water and sewage flooded into the area from damaged pipes after the landslide hit.
Weidner Apartment Homes, the company that owns the apartment building the Charles family had lived in, offered for them to stay at a vacant unit in another Anchorage apartment building. The family had been planning to move at the end of the month, but Tanisha Charles said she feels grateful to have a place to live until then. The company did not respond to messages left by a reporter.
Friends, clients, neighbors and classmates have also come together to help the family recover, Tanisha Charles said.
In the week since, the Charles children have started to cope with the trauma from the landslide, their mother said.
Palmer has spent much of her time sleeping, her mother said, and the 10-year-old hopes to feel well enough to return to her fifth grade classroom next week.
Tanisha Charles said she feels lucky her daughter wasn’t hurt worse. The metal bunk bed frame likely protected her from much of the toppling debris, her father said.
“If she was anywhere else in that room, it would’ve been a completely different story,” Melvin Charles said.