Crews prepare to rescue dozens of travellers trapped by landslides on B.C. highway

Crews prepare to rescue dozens of travellers trapped by landslides on BC highway-Milenio Stadium-Canada
Fire crews responding to a mudslide on Highway 7 near Agassiz, B.C., gather at a command post set up at a nearby gas station on Sunday. (Shane Mackichan)
Search and rescue crews are assessing the damage from landslides that have left travellers trapped on a southern B.C. highway, as they try to determine a safe way to reach those in need.

David Boone, the team director of the Heavy Urban Search and Rescue Task Force team in B.C. and an assistant chief at the Vancouver Fire Department, said early Monday that his team hasn’t yet had a full view of the scope of the landslides and debris flow.

The landslides, which occurred on Sunday on Highway 7 near Agassiz, B.C., about 125 kilometres east of Vancouver, came as communities in southern parts of the province dealt with heavy rainfall.

Boone said his team arrived to support members of the fire department in Agassiz, who had already rescued at least 12 people trapped in vehicles from the debris flow. Two others were rescued on the east side, by either a search and rescue team or workers from the fire department in Hope, he told CBC News Network.

“What complicates this situation is we have two slides on Highway 7 and we have people that were trapped in the debris … and some have been rescued,” Boone told CBC’s Heather Hiscox, noting that officials are not yet sure if there are other vehicles missing and other people who are not accounted for.

He said officials believe there are approximately 50 vehicles trapped on Highway 7 in between the two debris fields, with approximately two to three people in each vehicle.

Boone said he spoke to a nurse who was travelling in one of the vehicles who was doing assessments. The nurse found those they had seen were “safe and secure at this time.” People trapped between the slides have been urged to stay in their vehicles for now, he said.

‘It’s very scary’

Martina Martinkova, who is trapped in her vehicle with her daughter on Highway 7, said she is “very stressed.”

“We don’t have any information,” she said in an interview with Heather Hiscox Monday morning. She said she’s been trying for hours to find out what will happen with rescue efforts.

People were starting to share their food and water, she said, noting that she saw at least one family on the highway with a baby.

She said she’s been in touch with her loved ones, who know she and her daughter are safe.

“You see this in the movies, honestly, and you thought it will never touch you,” she said. “It’s very scary.”

Adam Wuisman and his fiancé were travelling back to their home in Richmond, B.C., on Highway 7, following a weekend trip in Nelson, when he said a landslide came down behind them.

“We were going westbound and there were huge lines of traffic … and all of a sudden, I noticed there’s no vehicles behind us, which was odd,” he told CBC’s The Early Edition on Monday morning.

“We must have just missed the first [landslide] and now somehow we’re between both of them.”

The pair have been stuck on that stretch of Highway 7 since 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Wuisman said.

“It’s a very eerie feeling here,” he described.

“When we got here, everybody had their headlights on and then slowly, as the hours passed, headlights went off and everything became pitch-black.”

Emergency officials said they don’t yet have a complete picture of how many people are trapped. Wuisman, however, said he thinks there are far more than 50 vehicles stuck — estimating around 200 to 300 vehicles stranded on that patch of highway.

“I definitely heard people screaming for help,” he said.

“It’s kind of helpless to feel like you’re between a very vulnerable mountainside side and the Fraser River on the other side. And there’s really nothing you can do about it, but hope nothing comes down on top of you.”

Officials hope to survey from air

Boone, who noted that officials are “still a bit blind” on the full scope of the issue, said the stability of the ground and issues around hydro wires are complicating the rescue efforts.

He said it’s too dangerous to get close right now, noting that further assessments will come at daybreak.

“We’re assessing as to the best access points for us to make entry into the area,” he said, noting that rescue workers will co-ordinate with CP Rail as the best way in may be along a rail line.

“We won’t put our rescuers into the area until we determine it’s safe to do so,” he said, noting that they hope to be able to survey from the air later in the day.

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