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Survivor of Deadly 1983 Arctic Blast: “I Knew if I Went to Sleep I Would Freeze to Death”

Published: 12/01/2016

A book of matches, a flare and a Pepsi may be the only reasons Charlie VanBenschoten is alive today.

Thirty-three years ago, he used them to survive a fast-moving arctic front that took the lives of 11 hunters in coastal Louisiana and stranded many others – one for which he was unaware and unprepared.

That’s why VanBenschoten, a construction supervisor in Entergy’s Algiers-Gretna district across the Mississippi River from New Orleans, wants to make sure hunters heading to their blinds this duck season are prepared for all contingencies.

“If you’re going to hunt, you have to be prepared for any situation. And you have to make sure somebody knows exactly where you are going,” he said. “If something goes wrong, they have to know where to look.”

VanBenschoten is certain he would be prepared today thanks to the safety culture that has strengthened over the years at Entergy.

“They didn’t preach safety to us back then,” he said. “But things are different now. Entergy has groomed us that it’s safety first both at work and at home, so guys are much more prepared today. They’re going to have the emergency kit; they’re going to have the right life jackets in the boat. The preparedness we have today with the company, there’s no doubt in my mind all of that would’ve been in my boat. It is today.”

Life before high-tech tools

In 1983 VanBenschoten didn’t have the benefit of 24-hour weather news or high-tech hunting gear, and cellphones didn’t yet exist.

So he was in the dark that Christmas Eve morning when he headed to the south Louisiana marsh just as a record cold arctic front moved through Louisiana.

By the time VanBenschoten reached the area where he planned to hunt, “the wind was so bad, it blew my little boat up onto a mud flat and I was stuck. And it was already getting cold.”

Wearing only a lightweight jacket he pulled on that morning, VanBenschoten made it to dry land. He immediately started cutting marsh grass with a machete he had in the bottom of his boat, building a big mound of grass “that looked like a nutria hut” to cut the wind.

A quick stop at a convenience store that morning gave him the tools he used to survive the frigid weather – a glass Pepsi bottle and a last second purchase of a book of matches.

“Take the time to make sure you are prepared for any contingency. The risk is too great.”

Common sense and ingenuity

VanBenschoten never had survival training; it was common sense and ingenuity that kept him alive. His first attempts at keeping warm – burning wood and marsh grass inside his hut – ended with choking clouds of smoke chasing him out of his shelter.

That’s when he hit on the idea of moving the boat’s fuel tank close to the hut and squeezing the fuel primer ball to “fill that Pepsi bottle up with the gas and oil mixture.”

He dug a hole in the mud, poured in some of the fuel and set it on fire with one of his matches. It was a process he continued for more than 10 hours. At one point he climbed out of his hut and saw an orange glow in the sky he thought was the sun. “It turned out to be a full moon coming up. And that is when I started thinking I’m not going to make it. I knew if I went to sleep I would freeze to death.”

'Far down' rescue list

Fortunately, that afternoon a neighbor realized VanBenschoten hadn’t made it back from the hunting trip. The neighbor alerted VanBenschoten’s parents, who were running their ice cream parlor in Chalmette, La., and unaware of what was going on. His parents and his brother, who knew where VanBenschoten planned to hunt, called the Coast Guard but were told there were so many people stranded in the marsh and needing rescue that he was “pretty far down that list.”

In an incredible twist of fate just a few weeks before, VanBenschoten found a flare on the side of the road while repairing power lines. He had thrown it in his boat.

“It was about 12:30 or 1 in the morning when the helicopter showed up. I grabbed that flare and struck it and that’s how they pinpointed me.”

'Best tasting coffee ever had'

One of the Coast Guard personnel handed him a cup of coffee to help warm him up. “That had to be the best tasting coffee I have ever had,” he said. “And I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the work the men and women of the Coast Guard do. They don’t get nearly enough recognition for their work.”

The chopper delivered him to Belle Chasse, La., early that Christmas morning where his parents and brother were waiting. VanBenschoten survived with what he described as “a light case of frostbite” on his feet.

While technology has progressed tremendously in the last 33 years, VanBenschoten emphasizes the need for everyone to be prepared and stay safe this hunting season.  

“Take the time to make sure you are prepared for any contingency,” he said. “The risk is too great.”

Michael Burns