Thirty-six hours, four landslides – one unforgettable experience.
That’s how Sechelt resident Julia Murray describes the events caused by an atmospheric river on Nov. 14 and 15 that ended in a helicopter rescue.
She and her friend Keeran Peel were on their way back to the Coast after visiting friends in Kamloops and her sister in Kelowna, when they were turned back on the Coquihalla (Highway 5) following a mudslide and the surging river washing away sections of the road. After waiting for an hour and a half, they took a five-hour detour through Merritt and Princeton. By then it was 7:30 p.m., pitch black and, as they neared Agassiz, they ended up 10 to 15 cars away from another slide. A traffic control person sent them back in the direction of Hope, only for them to stop again after less than a kilometre – another slide trapped them.
Murray and Peel were two of the approximately 275 people stuck between two landslides on Highway 7 near Agassiz and Hope overnight Nov. 14. Cut off on both sides, there was nothing to do but wait for help.
From inside the car, Murray could see small waterfalls streaming down the mountainside. Traffic control sent them towards Agassiz again, hoping they would be protected by the semi trucks on the road. They were told not to leave their vehicles.
Although they tried to get some sleep, it was a restless night. About nine people were in vehicles that were pushed off the road by the landslide.
“I could hear people screaming in the swamp and close to the river, screaming for help as Search and Rescue was trying to find them,” Murray said. “The car alarms were going off all night because of the vehicles that were stuck in the swamp… It was just so terrifying.”
Murray said she was worried another slide would take them out during the night. When it started to get light out, they could finally see what surrounded them. A Facebook group called “Stuck on Highway 7” was organized to keep them informed about what was going on. Some used the communication channel as a way to pool food together for those who did not have enough supplies with them.
In the afternoon of Nov. 15, helicopters began flying overhead, looking for a place to land. Once they landed on the highway, the evacuees had to walk through the landslide to reach the Canadian Air Force’s military aircraft, Murray said.
“I’m definitely experiencing some PTSD, because the whole situation was just totally unpredictable and unexpected. And just the craziest thing that's ever happened to me in my whole life, for sure,” Murray told Coast Reporter after returning home.
Once they were aboard the helicopter, she said, “I never felt safer.” Murray felt lucky they didn’t have to spend another night, and was relieved to hear the people swept off the road were OK.
At the Agassiz recreation centre, Murray and Peel were given warm blankets, dry clothes and – for the first time in hours – water. A volunteer drove the pair to Chilliwack, where family members were able to pick them up. They missed the flooding in the Fraser Valley, and more road closures, by a couple of hours.
“We're back on the Coast now. And we are safe and sound and super happy that it wasn't worse than it was,” Murray said. “Once we got off the ferry, it was just like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. And I was so ready to just go to sleep and, finally, have a nice warm shower.”
As for the car – her mom’s – it was still on the highway as of Nov. 18, and would be towed along with the others by the RCMP and ICBC.
“I was like, ‘Sorry, mom, I had to abandon your car on the side of the highway,’” she quipped.
Now, Murray wants to thank all those who helped, from the traffic controllers, Search and Rescue team, the helicopter crew to the many volunteers.
“I've never seen so many helpful people get together in the community like that at once, for a huge crisis like that. It was really nice to see and [I’m] super thankful for everybody that that helped,” Murray said.
After her experience, the 22-year-old said she hopes people will travel with an emergency kit including water, food, blankets and warm clothes.
“This whole experience was just a huge eye-opener. With all of the flooding and everything that's going on in B.C. right now, it hurts my heart to watch and especially being a part of it all,” she said. “I thought maybe it was just going to be ... these landslides, but all of the damage that it's that's been done, I just really hope that the province can get together and we can do something.
“I want to be able to do something and make a change, or make some kind of donation,” Murray said. “It's been a crazy year, and this was just the cherry on top.”