'Quite amazing': Island team rescues hundreds stranded in B.C. landslide
They’re normally used to assisting one or two people at a time, but crews from the 442 Search and Transport Squadron out of CFB Comox found themselves assisting more than 300 people on Monday.
Crews flew aboard three Cormorant helicopters to evacuate motorists trapped along Highway 7 outside of Agassiz, B.C. between two landslides that occurred Sunday evening.
"I would say I picked up more people yesterday than I have in the entire rest of my career since I started this," said Maj. John McSheffrey, an Aircraft Commander and pilot with the Vancouver Island-based squadron.
The three aircraft were dispatched to the Lower Mainland on Monday to conduct a series of multiple flights between the slide zone and to where evacuees were dropped off some eight miles, or five minutes, away.
Crews evacuated 311 people, 26 dogs and one cat during those trips.
"It felt a little overwhelming yesterday just picking up loads of people so quickly and with so many bodies," said McSheffrey. "But when we took a step back at the end of the day we were pretty happy with the outcome for sure."
Sgt. Nigel Donley was a Search and Rescue Technician aboard one of the Cormorants.
"When we arrived on scene it took us some time to establish a landing area," said Donley. "But once we had that, all the people that were stranded were lined up and ready to go. They were being managed by the ground search and rescue team."
The landing scene was complicated because of the difficult terrain and the slide debris.
"It was along a highway, and a very narrow one at that, with a rock cliff on one side and power lines on the other side, so it took us a couple of attempts to find an area wide enough where we could land the Cormorant," said Donley.
'SHOCKING FOR A LOT OF PEOPLE'
Danielle Jalbert of Delta, B.C. was one of those people who was airlifted from the area after spending Sunday evening in her car, along with her own dog and two others she was looking after.
She had been returning from Clearwater, B.C. when she was forced to turn around at one landslide and then came to a complete stop as the result of the second slide. She says motorists kept informed with one another and shared resources after those trapped set up a Facebook group.
"For me it was OK but obviously it was shocking for a lot of people," she told CTV News.
"I felt bad for a lot of people who were obviously very, very scared or had children that were scared."
Jalbert says she was relieved to be airlifted out of the area and is now staying with a community member in Chillwack who gave her transportation and opened her home to the woman and her dogs.
"Looking around, a lot of people were just happy to get out of there and there was a few people who were obviously very scared," she said.
"I don’t know if they were scared to be on the helicopter or the experience altogether, it’s really hard to say."
Jean Leroux, the Commanding Officer for the squadron, says the three Cormorants were airborne within 30 minutes of the call-out, and it represents the largest single undertaking the squadron has carried out.
"I think it shows the robustness of the emergency system in Canada," he said.
"We have the federal, the provincial, the municipal, we’ve got SAR volunteers, we’ve got military, we’ve got paid organizations – so I think once an emergency of this size occurs we realize how we all come together to actually work together," he said. "I think that was quite amazing yesterday."
According to Leroux, those weren’t the only tasks of the day though.
"Yesterday, during the same event, we had an emergency boat distress up by Port Hardy," he said. "We also had a plane emergency down in the Interior as well that we’re dealing with. So we’re just dispatching as priorities arise. But absolutely we’re there for Canadians 24 hours a day."