JOHNSONS LANDING, B.C. – A rescue mission in southeastern British Columbia turned into a grim recovery operation on Sunday as excavation crews unearthed the body of one of four people missing in a massive landslide.
At least three homes were crushed when a torrent of mud and debris thundered down on the tiny hamlet of Johnsons Landing on Thursday.
A search team of about 70 people had been combing through a debris field of shifting soil and rock amid a relentless rain ever since, but RCMP officials said the discovery of a man’s body appeared to crush any lingering hope of finding survivors.
The Mounties subsequently handed the operation over to the B.C. Coroner’s Service on Sunday night.
“As a result of the excavation and the work conducted…the remains of one male were recovered today from that site,” RCMP Cpl. Dan Moskaluk told The Canadian Press.
“The remains were found late this afternoon following a rapid and expansive disaster response.”
Police have identified those missing in the slide as 17-year-old and 22-year-old sisters Rachel and Diana Webber, their 60-year-old father Valentine John Webber, and 64-year-old Petra Frehse, who was a German national.
“Throughout the week there has been reference to two possible locations for the remains. The search and rescue effort was concentrating on one residence that was identified as having the highest probability of finding the remains of the four individuals,” Moskaluk said of the search effort.
Officials said that during strategic excavation work the body of a man, believed to be Valentine Webber, was found near the foundations of a home that was swept away in the slide.
Moskaluk said the families of the missing had been given the sad news.
“Our condolences to the Webber family for their loss, and again we offer our support and condolences to the family of Petra Frehse.”
A recovery effort continued for the bodies of the three women, but search and rescue teams were being pulled from the site as the operation transitioned into a coroner’s investigation.
“Searches for the remaining missing people are underway,” said Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe, who called it a “very, very difficult time” for their loved ones.
Lapointe was at the site on Sunday and said it was “a priority to locate the deceased.”
Identification specialists from the coroner’s office were at the site to assist with recovery efforts.
“The B.C. Coroner’s service will do what we can to assist in not only recovery of the remains but in investigating these deaths,” Lapointe said.
Premier Christy Clark extended her condolences to the families of the missing on Sunday night.
“I was saddened to be advised that the mission at Johnsons Landing has now been re-classified as a recovery. At times like these, it is difficult to give up hoping for a miracle,” she said in a statement.
“Communities and governments have provided every possible response to this disaster, and nature has conspired against us in many ways, even as work continues on the site.”
Clark also pledged her government’s support to the community of Johnsons Landing, which has been devastated by the slide.
About 70 people, including RCMP, search and rescue crews and a heavy urban search and rescue team had been conducting a grid search of the area using GPS technology and information from local residents.
Some emergency resources were diverted from Johnsons Landing to the scene of another, separate mudslide which struck Sunday near the community of Fairmount, B.C..
RCMP said that “large scale” slide closed parts of Highway 93/95 and triggered the rescue of at least one person, but there were no reported injuries.
“There’s an immediate response that is mustering for this second event,” Moskaluk said.
“There has already been one rescue via helicopter long line of some individuals at that location.”
Meanwhile, a development emerged in the analysis of the moments leading up to the Johnsons Landing mudslide even before Sunday afternoon’s discovery of a body.
The B.C. Ministry of Forests said over the weekend that it had received an email from a Johnsons Landing resident on the morning of the day the slide occurred.
In the email the woman, whose name wasn’t released by the ministry, said she noticed “surges of chocolate-coloured water that came down Gar Creek,” each bringing down a significant number of logs and debris and causing a jam.
“As soon as the log jam formed, gravel began to be deposited behind it,” she said. “The entire level of the creekbed has now been raised at least (1.8 metres) in that area.”
The woman wrote later that the whole creek was flowing over and down her driveway and made reference to a conversation with a friend, who had search and rescue experience, who told her to stay on high ground.
Hours later, the mountainside gave way.
Jeremy Zandbergen, executive director of the Kootenay Boundary Region, said a series of slides consisting of water-soaked soil will often lead to a larger slide being triggered.
He said the large Kootenay slide may have been triggered by a clogged creek, leading to a mass of water putting pressure on a gully until it finally burst and barreled down the hillside.
“It sure appears as though a combination of snow melt and the heavy rains — record rains — we received in June acted as a one-two punch to really elevate the soil moisture content and result in small failures which eventually caused a larger debris flow,” said Zandbergen.
“The simple (reason for the slide) is water — snow melt and rain.”
— By Diana Mehta in Toronto