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Missoula avalanche memories still fresh 3 years later

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MISSOULA, Mont. - Neighbors in Missoula's Rattlesnake neighborhood are remembering the tragedy that struck three years ago Tuesday, after a snowboarder-triggered avalanche killed one woman, buried a home and damaged several others.

A massive amount of snow swept down a Mount Jumbo ravine onto a home on Holly Street just after 4 p.m. on Feb. 28, 2014. The lot now sits vacant.

An elderly couple -- husband and wife -- and an 8-year-old boy were buried in the rubble. It took first responders around an hour to uncover all three. They were all transported to the hospital, where the woman later died from her injuries.

The memory still greatly affects neighbor Janice Hensel, who lives just next door to the scene.

"It's so sad. It's just a tragic thing and still breaks my heart," she said. "My husband and I still go over there in the spring and just sit for a couple of hours and just say prayers for them."

Jonathan Speare lives down the street from the scene and recounted the chaos Tuesday. His house also backs up to Mount Jumbo.

"I was floored. I remember seeing the top portion of the house lying on its side. It was kind of mind boggling," Speare said.

Speare said he feared the snow would prevent him from returning home the Friday evening the avalanche hit.

He left work early out of concern and made it home just in time but said his wife was still out running errands.

"She called and said she couldn't get home because there had been an avalanche," Speare said. He said traffic backed up for several blocks in the Rattlesnake.

Speare said he and his family stayed with friends after the avalanche hit in case more danger was on its way.

"I can't imagine all of the factors that came together to make (the avalanche) happen," he added.

The avalanche marked one of the most intense scenes Missoula Fire Department Battalion Chief Kip Knapstead has witnessed in his career.

"It's still just one of those scenes you don't forget. You just kind of remember that stuff," he said.

Knapstead said he did not realize the scale of the avalanche when responders first got the call.

"It just wasn't really registering in my mind that we could have an avalanche in Missoula," he added.

The avalanche made national headlines and changed more than just the lives of first responders and those who lost loved ones. The MFD now trains in how to respond to avalanches in urban-interface communities.

"Every time it snows, you know, you think about it a little bit," Speare added.

He says the event now seems like a distant memory, but the threat of what it means to live along the Montana mountains still lingers in the back of Speare's mind.

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