Detailed Accident Report

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Date: 2008-12-28
Submitted By: WWAN
Place: Harvey Pass area
State: BC
Country: CANADA
Fatalities: 8
Summary: 11 snowmobilers caught in 2 slides, 8 buried and killed



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B.C. avalanche survivor describes ordeal

Made 'gut-wrenching' decision to leave friends behind

December 31, 2008 12:21 PM

Jaff Adams was buried at first, then he and two others had to abandon eight of their friends as more avalanches crashed into the area.

One of three survivors of a pair of avalanches in southeastern British Columbia that killed eight men says that, after the second slide came down, they had to make a “gut-wrenching decision” to leave their close friends behind and climb out of the backcountry.

“The first one was big. The second one that hit us, the avalanche centre said it hit us at 150 kilometres an hour, plus I think the walls (of snow) were 15 feet high,” Jeff Adams told a news conference in Sparwood, B.C., on Wednesday.

“I felt the weight of the snow and I thought that was it for me,” he said. “I managed to float almost to the surface. When I opened my eyes I could see daylight. I was digging and managed to get my mouth free and I was already choking and took a few breaths and after about five minutes of struggling I got myself out and looked around.”

Adams then heard yelling and with freezing bare hands and no toque he quickly started digging his friend Jeremy out of the snow.

Often overcome with emotion during the news conference, Adams recalled that the worst part of the experience was making the decision to leave his eight buried friends behind.

“There’s a million things going through your head and it’s not something you think about until the day after,” he said. “We did everything we could to try to save them,” he said, choking back tears.

After the three men were clear another avalanche hit. Adams said they knew it wasn’t safe to search for the others.

“The only signal I could get was Mike Stier’s and I knew it was too deep to help him. I took a quick look around and I couldn’t see anybody. I couldn’t see no hands, no feet sticking up,” he said.

“We contemplated whether getting the one snowmobile that wasn’t hit by the slide out . . . and that’s when we had to make the gut-wrenching decision to leave our eight friends and start walking off the mountain.”

After he walked for about 10 minutes or so, Adams said he contemplated going back and trying to look one more time but the three men felt it would be better to go and get help. Also, another slide hit as they were walking.

“As I turned back to look at the mountain the whole centre of the mountain came down, burying everything again, so we just decided that our best bet was to keep walking,” he said.

“I knew that if the 911 call worked it wouldn’t be long for a helicopter,” he said.

Jeremy Rusnak - a cousin of one of the victims - and James Drake also survived the slide.

Eight men died after they were buried in the avalanche on Sunday near Fernie, B.C., a town not far from their hometown of Sparwood.

Their bodies were recovered Monday and Tuesday following an exhaustive search and rescue mission.

The residents of the small mining town of Sparwood gathered Tuesday for memorial services at two churches to comfort the avalanche survivors and the families who lost members in the tragedy.

At the Sparwood Christian Centre, Rev. Ross Powell urged the community’s continued support for the grieving families and friends.

Teck Coal, the mining company where half the victims worked, has offered two company houses for out-of-town relatives to stay. The local grocery store has stocked the houses with food so the family members don’t have to shop when they arrive in town.

Mayor David Wilks has opened two trust accounts for the families. The mayor is also meeting with a local funeral home to discuss the possibility of a group funeral for all eight victims.

On Tuesday night, the town of 3,618 residents mourned at two memorial services for the men. That came on the heels of a candle light vigil Monday night.

The men who died have left behind widows and children both young and grown. Their names were: Danny Bjarnason, 28, Leonard Stier, 45, and his son Michael Stier, 20, Warren Rothel, 33, Thomas Talarico, 32, Kane Rusnak, 30, Leonard Stier, 45, Kurt Kabel, 28, and Blayne Wilson, 26.

© Copyright (c) Canwest News Service


SPARWOOD, B.C. — The search for an eighth missing snowmobiler feared dead following a massive avalanche is expected to resume Tuesday, weather permitting.

Searchers recovered seven bodies Monday but had to call off efforts to find the final missing person because of heavy snow and darkness. Three snowmobilers survived. Searchers will assess weather and snow conditions Tuesday before setting out.

RCMP said the men were all wearing avalanche beacons when they were riding together Sunday in the Flathead Valley, 40 kilometres southwest of Fernie, B.C.

Police said some members from a group of seven snowmobilers were buried by an avalanche in the Harvey Pass area — a popular backcountry snowmobile destination.

A second group of four snowmobilers heard yelling from the area and came to the aid of members from the first group who were in the process of digging out their fellow riders.

The RCMP said the newly formed group was able to locate one rider, but as they were digging him out at a depth of about three metres, a second avalanche came down and buried the entire group.

Two of the buried riders managed to get themselves out within about 20 minutes. These two used avalanche beacons to locate a third buried victim who they rescued after an additional 20 minutes of digging.

The Provincial Emergency Program was notified when automated distress calls were received from communications devices worn by the snowmobilers. A helicopter was dispatched to the scene to pick up two of the three survivors. The third survivor was transported by ground with the assistance of Fernie Search and Rescue personnel.

Police haven’t officially released their names, but those missing or dead have been identified as Warren Rothel, Thomas Talarico, Kane Rusnak, Danny Bjarnason, Leonard Stier and his son Michael Stier, Kurt Kabel and Blaine Wilson.

The eight were part of a group of 11 men, believed to be in their 20s and 30s, who were experienced in the sport of snowmobiling but were not considered veterans.

Several of the men had children.

Hundreds of people gathered at a candle-light vigil Monday night to mourn.

Sparwood Mayor David Wilks told the crowd of about 500 people who gathered for the vigil that the 11 men caught in the avalanche “touched each and every one of us. They were all good guys.”

“We’ve come together as a community to show our strength and our hopes for all those who have been affected by the tragic events of the past two days,” he said.

The mayor urged people to offer their continued support to the men’s families in the coming days.

"Sparwood changed (Sunday) and we must recognize we all have a role to play. The families deserve it, the boys deserve it and every one of you deserve it," he said.

The official part of the vigil ended after a half-hour with a local clergyman reciting the Lord’s Prayer, but Wilks encouraged people to stay and talk to each other.

"If you feel so inclined, give (people) a hug, because you know what? You never know when it’s your turn," he said.

Many stayed to talk quietly. Dozens placed their candles in snowbanks.

Families of the men were supporting each other after receiving the grim news Monday, police said.

“The immediate families of most of the victims are all congregated together, in support of each other,” said RCMP Cpl. Chris Faulkner.

“I believe that they all expect the worst in a situation like this.”

Officials had acknowledged all day that time was working against the missing men, who were from Sparwood, a community of about 4,000 people in southeastern B.C.

“I think that in situations like these, searchers put the labour in front of their emotions and you almost have to set that aside and go out and do the job that you’re trained to do, that you’re asked to do and the emotional impact grips you once it’s over,” said Faulkner.

The entire town is going to be crushed,” said Lana, a longtime friend of some of the men who didn’t want her last name published.

“It would be bad enough to heal after one. How do you heal after eight?”

Lana said she has known one of the men, Kurt Kabel, since she was five years old.

She described him as a protector and good influence during her teenage years — so much so, her father always wanted him to accompany her when they went out.

“If I was allowed to go out, I made sure he was able to go out with me,” she said.

Kabel, believed to be in his late 20s, married earlier this year and he and his wife have an infant son. He works at a hydraulic equipment repair company in Sparwood.

Lana said another man, Blaine Wilson, and his girlfriend are the godparents of her young son.

Wilson, also in his mid- to late-20s was a frequent companion of Lana’s boyfriend on hunting trips in the area. He’s a heavy duty mechanic for a Sparwood company.

“He’s the best hunting companion there is. They thrived on climbing up the mountains and hunting together,” she said.

Fernie Mayor Cindy Corrigan, said the men should not have ventured out into that particular area because the avalanche risk was high.

“I’m quite devastated by it all,” she said. “But the conditions we’ve had over the past few days are just so severe, so it’s a shame that they decided to go into the backcountry.”

Fernie is located about 320 kilometres southwest of Calgary. Sparwood is nearby.

The incident happened just two days after the Canadian Avalanche Centre issued a special avalanche warning to recreational backcountry users in B.C.’s south coast and North Shore regions for the weekend.

CAC forecaster James Floyer warned Friday that the avalanche danger in the Columbia Mountains south of Revelstoke to the U.S. border and east of the Okanagan Valley to Golden, Invermere and Cranbrook would increase quickly with significant snowfall.

The Canadian Avalanche Centre says that, from 1978 to 2007, an average of 11 avalanche fatalities occurred per year in Canada.

Last winter season, 18 Canadians were killed in avalanches. The worst year on record was the 2002 to 2003 season, when 29 Canadians died in avalanches. Before that, in 1997 and 1998, there were 21 deaths,

Canwest News Service and Calgary Herald

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun