VANCOUVER – After seven gruelling days searching for four people buried under the debris of a massive landslide in southeastern B.C., the members of a specialized search-and-rescue team returned to Vancouver on Thursday, disappointed they were forced to leave without uncovering two of the victims.
A family of three and a German traveller were buried by last Thursday’s slide at Johnsons Landing, more than 200 kilometres southwest of Calgary, but in the days that followed searchers were only able to recover two bodies.
The search for the remaining two victims was called off Wednesday night, when it became apparent the chances of finding them in dangerous conditions were becoming increasingly slim.
The search was scaled back earlier in the week when officials determined there were no survivors trapped in the mud, and the remaining members of a heavy urban search-and-rescue team, some with scrapes and bruises, returned on Thursday.
Team leader Jim Young said the group had mixed feelings about the end of their mission.
“There was some sense that we didn’t accomplish all of our objectives, because there are still two missing people out there,” Young told reporters.
“But after reflection … we realized the magnitude of the operation that we were faced with up there, and believe that we really did do everything in our power to bring closure to the families of those missing people.”
Sixty-year-old Valentine Webber’s body was uncovered Sunday, and the remains of one of his daughters were found the next day. The BC Coroners Service has yet to confirm whether that second body was that of 17-year-old Rachel Webber or her 22-year-old sister, Diana.
One of the sisters and Petra Frehse, a 64-year-old traveller from Germany who was a regular visitor to the area, are still buried somewhere under the slide.
Another member of the search-and-rescue team, engineer Doug Smith, said the landslide site was “like being on another planet.”
The giant wall of mud, trees and rock that thundered down the mountainside had destroyed three homes. Smaller slides were still coming down the mountain as the searchers worked.
“The first time you walk up on the site and you see the size of the slide, you catch your breath a little bit, you’re a bit intimidated,” said Smith.
“After that, you focus on the job and get in there to do the work you need to do, and you don’t think about whether you’re going to be successful or not — you just start working.”
The Central Kootenay Regional District and the RCMP have taken over the site of the landslide.
Over the next few days, officials will reassess the 34 hectares of debris to determine their next course of action.