SALT LAKE CITY — A southern Utah woman is badly injured but grateful to be alive after a boulder the size of a small car broke free from a cliff above her house, crashed through her bedroom wall, and hit her like a "giant fist" while she slept, her husband said Tuesday.
Wanda Denhalter has to eat out of a straw because her broken jaw is wired shut, and it's painful to laugh, cough, blow her nose or sit up because of a broken sternum, said her husband, Scot Denhalter.
The 63-year-old woman also has three layers of stitches on a gash that stretches from her knee to her ankle, he said. But considering how close she came to being crushed to death, she's feeling blessed, he said.
"She's definitely lucky, no doubt about it," Scot Denhalter said. "She's very grateful."
Wanda Denhalter was sleeping alone Saturday at 3 a.m. in the middle of a king-sized bed when a 12-by-9-foot boulder came barreling through the wall of her St. George home, after breaking off from a cliff above the house, Scot Denhalter said. He was sleeping at his son's house to make room for visitors that never arrived.
"Had I been there, she would have been killed," said Scot Denhalter, 62, a teacher at Dixie State College. "She would have been on her side of the bed."
Though Wanda Denhalter survived, the boulder did plenty of damage. She was in surgery for four hours at the St. George hospital, as doctors stitched up a gash that went to the bone.
Wanda Denhalter doesn't remember much about what happened, but her husband has pieced together the facts by looking at pictures and examining the area near, around and above the house. He's figured out that the boulder snapped off a cliff face, dropped about 30 to 40 feet until it hit a slope and then bounded toward the house, leaving huge divots every 30 feet. It broke in half before bouncing into the corner of the bedroom.
"She still got hit squarely, like a big, giant fist," Scot Denhalter said. "It was like a small dump truck."
She yelled for help, but nobody came because she was the only one in the three-house cul-de-sac. She fumbled through the house until she found the phone, and dialed 911. There were bloody footprints inside and on the driveway and a 3-foot pool of blood where she sat waiting for the ambulance, Scot Denhalter said.
They are staying in a hotel for now and don't plan to return to the house they just started renting in mid-December. A state geologist told them to stay away from the home because of the unstable cliff, Scot Denhalter said.
"There is no way I want to risk a second incident," he said. "I'm surprised the city signed off on this development."
The subdivision where the Denhalters were living was approved by the city in the early 2000s and meets the city's hillside ordinance, St. George city spokesman Marc Mortensen said. Despite the incident, the city doesn't plan to reassess that ordinance, he said. There are many other housing developments near similar hills.
It's not uncommon for rocks and boulders to roll down the many hills in the area, but it is a very rare for them to hit homes, Mortensen said. A boulder rolled into a backyard of another home a few years back, but nobody was hurt. This is the first time in at least 15 years that a boulder has injured anybody, he said.
"It's a rare occurrence. It was an act of nature," Mortensen said. "Rain, wind, snow and frost all play a factor in the soil composition on hillsides. They are constantly shifting to some degree."
The Denhalters were high school sweethearts in Ogden before they went their separate ways and married others. They reconnected years later and have been married for six years.
When they first looked at the house, Scot Denhalter spotted the cliff above and remembered an incident during his childhood in Ogden, when a piece of cliff fell and hit a house. He told his wife about his worries, but she told him that would never happen.
When police woke up Scot Denhalter at his son's house at 5 a.m. Saturday to tell him about the accident, he didn't believe it first. He thought somebody was playing a joke because of his worries about the cliff line.
Scot Denhalter said he thought he was being "punked" until he flipped on the porch light and got a look at the officer.
"I saw he was in full uniform and I said, 'This is real,'" he said.