“Whoosh! I was floating,” Janalee recalls. “Shampoo, cream rinse, and mousse bottles were flying. The hairdresser was by the door holding her head and screaming.”
Seconds before, Janalee Minnich Gage had been sitting in the hairdresser’s chair, and now she was trapped under a car-sized boulder that had slid from the hillside crashing through the building.
“No one goes through what I went through and comes out unchanged,” says Janalee. That trip to the beauty salon 27 years ago in Ketchikan, changed her life. Janalee is well-known in Ketchikan. She’s a photographer, a third-term Ketchikan City Councilwoman, and community activist whose family goes back six generations. She’s active in many nonprofits around Ketchikan: PRIDE, wellness coalitions, the Herring Protectors, homeless and housing groups, Stand Up Alaska, plus arts, mental health and substance abuse groups.
Earlier that day, Janalee considered canceling her hair appointment. She’d woken up with a headache and was sore from playing softball the day before. The decision to keep her hair appointment would change her life; and later, minutes before the accident, decisions she made kept others from being injured that day. While she was under the loud hairdryer, Janalee sent away a friend and his 8-year-brother, who was next in line for a haircut. Janalee suggested they go get pizza and come back later for a haircut when she was done. Then, her hairdresser volunteered to get Janalee a latte to help curb her headache. When tons of earth, rocks, trees and muck slid toward the shop, sending the boulder crashing through the wall, the hairdresser was near the door about to head out of the building. Janalee recalls:
“Suddenly, cold water surrounded me, a large black mass sat in my way, and I was trapped. I tried to move, but my arms were pinned between the cabinets, and I was jammed under a sink, which was cocooning me and trapping me. I was able to free my right arm, and I reached for the phone, asking the hairdresser to calm down and hand it to me. She was spinning in circles and screaming. My head hurt and I just wanted her to stop screaming, and hand me the phone. One of us had to call 911. She stopped screaming, looked at me, and ran from the building. The horror on her face was nothing I could register, or grasp at the time, because I didn’t feel anything was wrong.”
A local man arrived with a 2-by-4 piece of lumber to attempt a rescue and another woman called 911. A fire department volunteer working nearby ran into the building, and seeing Janalee trapped beneath the huge rock, the rescue was set in motion. “I realized the swinging, angry snakes, hissing above me were live electric wires hovering, waiting for a connection with the few inches of water I was sitting in.” During the harrowing rescue emergency workers had to free Janalee’s head and arms from the sink and shut off the electricity.
Having grown up in Ketchikan many of the firemen and EMTs were her friends. “I couldn’t ignore the looks on their faces. Even under the helmets and gear, I could see the fear. Hell, I could smell it, and knew I was in trouble.” As the rescuers worked to free the boulder from on top of her, she “cussed like a sailor, fisherman and logger rolled into one.”
After 40 minutes, someone said they might have to cut her leg off. Fortunately, though, using jacks, they were able to lift the boulder enough to try and pull her out:
“I could feel the pulling on my leg. I said, ‘Stop! my leg is stuck.’ They realized that my leg was still attached, and so they slowly spatulated my leg off the cement floor like a pancake stuck to a grill. They never thought I would leave the place with my leg attached or my foot undamaged.”
The boulder had pinched off the main artery in her leg, so she hadn’t lost any blood. Preparing for the inevitable heavy blood loss, she was hooked up to IVs for transport to the hospital. She was medevaced from Ketchikan with a 1% chance of survival to Harborview’s burn unit for numerous de-gloving procedures, skin grafts, and rehabilitations. Janalee stresses that after something like that you never get back to “normal.”
I met Janalee in Wrangell a few days before the World Health Organization declared we were in a pandemic and the world shut down, linking us with this tumultuous and scary moment in time. Janalee had come to volunteer with a handful of locals collecting signatures for the Recall Dunleavy campaign. As we sat and collected signatures in downtown Wrangell, we talked about our ferry system, disability rights, adopted children, Indigenous rights and her accident.
“I don’t regret that day of my accident,” Janalee says. “Of course, I wished it never happened. However, I now have insight into a world I would never have had the privilege of knowing.”
That insight, though, is painful.
After her ordeal, Janalee learned her hometown could be passionate and helpful but also blind and ignorant of discriminatory behaviors and attitudes. When working for disability access to Ketchikan’s recreation facilities she’s heard hurtful sentiments like how she shouldn’t be allowed in the public swimming pool while children are there because “my leg would be scary” and “a gym is no place for handicap people.”
When Janalee speaks out and advocates for the disabled, we listen, but we also need to act. This pandemic has been especially difficult for our disabled community. Janalee says, “What’s challenging is the disregard for people with disabilities and those with compromised health, especially by those who think they’re invincible and aren’t willing to follow mask mandates. I’ve heard statements like, ‘Why should I wear a mask for someone who’s health issues were brought on by not taking care of themselves.’”
“I was healthy, active and my accident wasn’t my fault, but if I had a penny for every time someone said, ‘You must have done something terrible for G-d to punish you.’ I would be rich.” Janalee says people often assume disabilities only happen to those who don’t take care of themselves or are being punished for something they did in their lives. “I was a 27-year-old who went to get my hair done.”
Today, Janalee is concerned about another large boulder precariously sitting atop an embankment along Ketchikan’s North Tongass Highway. An area known for landslides, the boulder’s perch is unnerving. She’s been asking the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, to do something, but her advocacy is met with frustration. Janalee points out that communities in Southeast Alaska are often put on the back burner, and excuses are made to postpone work.
“My concern is that an accident like my own can be preventable, but neither the landowners nor the State of Alaska can see past the dollar signs so that a fellow community member never has to experience what I did.”
Working to make our Southeast Alaska communities inclusive and safer is Janalee’s passion.
“I have a passion to fight for a community that values all members and works towards inclusion, from the LGBTQAI+ community to people with disabilities. Plus, I work at building a state government that works for all communities, from the smallest village to the largest city.”
Janalee continues to advocate for others in her community and she’s still trying to get the DOT to do something about that stretch of dangerous highway. Preventing giant boulders from rolling onto the highway, installing pedestrian lights, advocating for disability access at recreation centers, helping create Ketchikan’s anti-discrimination ordinance, Janalee works to make Southeast a better place to live.
“Meanwhile we are just counting the days and time when we have a landslide that could kill one or more people. We just don’t know the date and time. Everyone who drives past that spot daily is rolling the dice, including me.”
• Wrangell writer and artist Vivian Faith Prescott writes “Planet Alaska: Sharing our Stories” with her daughter, Yéilk’ Vivian Mork. It appears twice per month in the Capital City Weekly.