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Family moves back home to Lia

Kine (12), Adrian (12) and Erlend (10) remember the avalanche before Christmas as very dramatic. But they have grown up i spisshusene at the bottom of Sukkertoppen and prefer to live in the same neighborhood. Now they are moving back in to another spisshus about 100 meters from where their old house once stood. FOTO: Christopher Engås

Family moves back home to Lia

Only luck prevented a deadly outcome for the Selnes family when an avalanche crushed their house. Now they have moved back to the neighborhood beneath Sukkertoppen.

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"I've gotten a lot of different feedback from people," says Tor Selnes. "Some say that we are tough, others believe we are totally mad. But this was our 'Skomakergata'. We have lived here for ten years in a warm, safe and very pleasant environment. I'm sure we'll build something positive here again."

The living room at Vei 230-4 is somewhat chaotic at present. Cartons of various belongings are stacked here and there, in anticipation of getting a space in drawers and cupboards. The house is right at the midpoint of the avalanche area. From the kitchen window, the family can look up and see where the wall of snow was released from Sukkertoppen on Dec. 19 of last year, and the site where their old home stood.

Dramatic

Tor and his kids – Erlend, 10, and Kine and Adrian, both 12 – were all inside the house when the avalanche struck. The family's mother, Liss, was on the mainland.

"I was sitting in the living room and watching television, and do not remember clearly what I did," Adrian says. "But at one point the living room window blew open and I jumped aside and moved towards the center of the living room, where I stood and held myself tight."

The house was pushed 80 meters down the hillside. Adrian stood in the middle of the living room floor and literally "surfed" with the snowpack. Afterwards, it was not possible to see where Adrian was sitting.

"There was snow packed into the corner where Adrian was sitting," Tor says. "If he had not jumped away, he would have been buried."

Agony

Tor was sleeping in the annex of the house. He was awakened suddenly by a mass of snow and building materials that crushed the room, flowing over him like a river.

"I fought for my life and tried to defend myself against the building materials with nails that came flying towards me," he says. "It poured over the top of the wall. Over the lower part of my body there was a river of snow, planks and other things."

When it was all over, he was laying diagonally with the lower part of his naked body buried.

"One foot came away relatively easily," Tor says. "The rest of my body, I had to dig out."

The annex he was in was physically separated from the house, but the father got in touch with Adrian by yelling desperately.

"I asked if Erlend and Kine were alive," Tor says. "Andrian answered yes and then I could breathe."

Holding up her hands

Kine and Erlend were laying in their beds on the second floor of the house when the avalanche struck.

"It shook terribly," Kine says "All of the furniture in the room shifted and my shelves were falling on the floor, and afterwards were all lopsided. I remember that I kept my hands up in case the ceiling fell down on me."

Her little brother, Erlend, was in the adjacent room. The interior of it behaved the same way.

"I remember I started to cry," he says. "Kine came and helped me out of the room, and we saw some of the damage around us. Later we climbed back in and got dressed. Then came the men who wrapped fleece blankets around us and brought us out."

Going many rounds

The family moved temporarily into a home at Haugen after the avalanche. It was not the same. Now, nine months later, they are unpacking in another of the distinctive pointed-roof houses known as spisshusene on Vei 230.

"The house at Haugen was impractically furnished for our use," says Tor, who knew where he wanted to stay. "Moreover, it was a house owned by Store Norske and Liss was ending her time there, so we had to move out anyway."

"A few years ago we sold our house in Gruvedalen to move into a spisshus," he says. "We have enjoyed it incredibly well and the kids have as well."

But the father had to go many rounds with his kids to get their approval to move back to the avalanche area. Adrian took the longest of all before he agreed to the plan.

"I missed the neighborhood and, of all the places in town, I would rather stay here" despite his hesitations, he says.

The parents are aware it may be difficult for children when winter storms set in.

"If the going gets tough during the winter we'll take a break for several weeks and travel down to Tromsø where we have an apartment," says Tor, adding he's already seen reactions from his kids.

"When there was a strong wind a few weeks ago, Kine and and Adrian had trouble sleeping. It's sounds and movements in the house that bothers them."

"Before when there were strong winds it was just, like, fun," Erlend says.

Relocation would be disappointing

In about a month, a report is expected from the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate (NVE). It will likely recommend where it is safe for people to live in Longyearbyen in the future. The report may contain recommendations for redevelopment of existing buildings because of avalanche danger. The Selnes family says they'll be disappointed if they have to leave their new home.

"We have not come so far that we've thought about that possibility yet," Tor says, gazing across the empty space where seven of the 11 homes destroyed once stood. "But clearly I will be disappointed if we have to get out of here soon. Here there is everything to ensure that we can build a good environment again for both the children and the adults."

"Here we can make something nice. There was a good clearing up job and the area is just waiting to be used for something sensible," he adds optimistically.

Tor and his wife have decorated the bedroom in the annex, in the same part of the house he was in when the avalanche struck. He says he believes in rigorous monitoring of the situation on the mountainside during winters to come and that a similar situation won't arise again.

Has the family managed to put some distance between themselves and the tragedy?

"Yes. Although the incident was tragic, can we actually have a little gallows humor about all of it now," Tor says.

In what way?

"There was a person who asked me if I really was moving into a spisshus again. When I answered yes, he made the following comment: 'Can you be kind enough to sleep with boxer shorts in the future?'"

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Adrian, Erlend and Kine have a view of Sukkertoppen and the plot where their old house stood from the kitchen in their new home. FOTO: Christopher Engås

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Tor has a picture of the home that was destroyed. Now he and his wife has a bedroom in the annex of the new spisshus the family lives in. FOTO: Christopher Engås

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After the avalanche, Tor laid half buried in snow in the area under the green wall on the picture. FOTO: Tor Selnes

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Tor and his children Erlend, Adrian and Kine hope they will settle well in their new home in Vei 230. FOTO: Christopher Engås

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The family used to live in the green house with a red circle around it. They have now moved to the house on the left side of the picture, about 100 meters from where their old house stood before the avalanche hit. The four houses in their old street and the seven houses on the street below is not there anymore. FOTO: Birger Amundsen (arkiv)

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