Mandy Bath’s garden in the tiny settlement of Johnsons Landing, B.C., on the shore of Kootenay Lake, was lush, and bursting with colour. She almost hated to leave what she and her husband, Christopher Klassen, call their “paradise,” their home of 20 years in the B.C. Interior. But a friend offered a ride that Thursday morning into Kaslo, about an hour around the lake from the isolated community of 35. There were errands to run and Bath had no vehicle; her husband had taken it to Oregon to visit his mother. As she waited beside Gar Creek, where it runs down the steep, treed hillside into the lake, she was disturbed to see the normally placid stream filled “with horrible brown liquid,” she said. “It was a slurry coming down. It should have been a huge warning sign.”
Her friend picked her up at 9 a.m. Bath didn’t know then that she had just cheated death. Remarkably, she would do so again, a day later.
At around the same time, 60-year-old Valentine Webber, a retired merchant mariner, was making breakfast in his lakefront home for his two daughters, Rachel, 17, and Diana, 22, sisters who loved the surrounding wilderness. One was speaking on a cellphone to a friend before sitting down to eat, a fact the girls’ frantic mother, Lynn Migdal, pieced together later from her home in Delray Beach, Fla. The Webbers’ neighbour, Petra Frehse, a German retiree who spent summers in the landing, was likely in her nearby home.
At roughly 10:30 a.m., Richard Ortega, 64, was on the road in front of his Johnsons Landing Retreat Center. The ground shook. There was a roar of snapping trees and rumbling rocks as a massive torrent of debris thundered down Gar Creek. “It sounded like a giant railroad train coming down the mountain,” said Ortega. It lasted 20 or 30 seconds. Then: “deafening silence.”
The deluge had jumped the creek channel and headed in two directions. One path had taken out three houses, including those of Webber and Frehse. Debris from the stream smashed Bath’s home and carried it 10 metres to the edge of the lake. Ortega and a friend tried to reach the site of the devastation by truck but the slide had taken out the road. Fifteen minutes later, after commandeering a canoe, they were climbing on Bath’s roof, knocking on windows, calling her and her husband’s names in vain. “It was so fresh you could hear glass cracking and wood snapping” as the building settled under the weight of mud, rocks and trees, Ortega said. They’d soon learn to their relief that the couple was away. Same story with the owner of one of the other three houses nearby. No one knew the fate of the Webbers, whose house had split in two, was carried down the hill and partially buried. Frehse’s house simply vanished. Ortega had spoken with Valentine and Frehse the evening before as the two drove out of the landing. He hoped they’d stayed in Kaslo. “But it wasn’t to be.”
By now, police, fire and rescue crews were scrambling. They found no signs of life. Above them, the looming hillside appeared dangerously unstable. Heavy equipment would be needed to dig through the 10 metres and more of trees, rock and mud, already setting like concrete. From Florida, an anguished Migdal pleaded with local officials and appealed to B.C. media to search for her daughters and ex-husband, even if it took hundreds of people with “picks and shovels.” An advance team of four members of Vancouver’s Heavy Urban Search and Rescue Team left for the scene at about 9 p.m. Thursday. Some 25 others followed.
Migdal, a chiropractor, is a friend of Ortega’s. She’d done workshops at his retreat. At 4:30 a.m. Friday morning, anguished that the search had yet to begin, she awakened Ortega with a call. “She says, ‘Richard, I’ve got this feeling that one of my daughters is still alive in that wrecked house.’ I couldn’t discount it, obviously.” He dressed and in the half-light of pre-dawn scrambled over the debris and peered into the section of the home where the kitchen was. He spent a half hour poking through areas he could reach, feeling a wrench as he peered into Valentine’s room, decorated with nautical charts. “There was just broken, shattered building and possessions here and there, and just this eerie silence.”
Later that morning, Bath set out in a boat across Kootenay Lake with friends, hoping to rescue her black cat, Ozzie. She’d learned of the disaster while in Kaslo and broke the news to her husband, who began the long drive home. When she stepped ashore at the slide site, some 24 hours had passed and she was sure it was safe. Less than half a minute later she heard trees snapping and a roar like thunder exploding overhead. The man in the boat screamed at her to run back. “I figure we only made it by a second or two, and only because he knew what he was doing.” He slammed the boat in reverse as mud, waves and logs boiled around them. “I was so stupid,” she said in retrospect. “I felt like I’ve cheated death twice. I can only conclude I was not meant to die in this last incident.”
The rescue operation, using excavators, began in earnest that weekend, with spotters equipped with air horns high on the hillside to give early warning of further slides. The body of a man, presumptively identified as Valentine, was recovered Sunday under three metres of debris. The search shifted from rescue to recovery.
That day, some 70 km over the mountains, a slide above the resort community of Fairmont Hot Springs dammed a creek. When it breached, a wall of mud and trees took out a bridge and road, stranding 500 holidayers. Miraculously, no one was hurt or killed.
Back in Johnsons Landing, midday on Monday, July 16, the body of a young woman, believed to be one of Valentine and Migdal’s daughters, was unearthed deep under rubble covering the family’s driveway. The deaths ripped through this close-knit community, where nature was always seen as a balm rather than a threat. The recovery mission continues at press time. Premier Christy Clark promised a review to determine if more could have been done, to identify the risk from this year’s combination of hard winter and rainy spring, or simply to speed the recovery. A fund was set up in Florida to help Migdal pay for eventual funerals. Ortega hopes to reopen his retreat by August.
Bath’s husband Christopher returned to see the devastation first-hand. Their home was gone, but the raised gardens were strangely untouched. He picked some strawberries and took photos. The flowers were a mass of colour, but there is nothing else to go back to, she said. “It was like looking through a window to a past life that was a million years ago”