The remains of a second person have been uncovered at the site of a landslide in southeastern B.C. that killed four people.
The BC Coroners Service and RCMP says the remains of a second person were found at Johnsons Landing, about 70 kilometres northeast of Nelson, though they didn’t release the identify of the remains.
Four people were missing after Thursday’s slide, including 60-year-old Valentine Webber, his two daughters and a German tourist.
On Sunday, searchers found a body believed to belong to Valentine Webber near the foundation of one of the homes ruined in the slide.
At least three homes were crushed when a torrent of mud and debris thundered down on the tiny hamlet of Johnsons Landing on Thursday.
A search team of about 70 people had been combing through a debris field of shifting soil and rock amid a relentless rain ever since, but RCMP officials said on Sunday that the discovery of the first man’s body crush any lingering hope of finding survivors.
The Mounties subsequently handed the operation over to the B.C. Coroner’s Service on Sunday night.
“As a result of the excavation and the work conducted...the remains of one male were recovered today from that site,” RCMP Constable Dan Moskaluk told The Canadian Press.
“The remains were found late this afternoon following a rapid and expansive disaster response.”
Police have identified those missing in the slide as 17-year-old and 22-year-old sisters Rachel and Diana Webber, their 60-year-old father Valentie John Webber, and 64-year-old Petra Frehse, who was a German national.
“Throughout the week there has been reference to two possible locations for the remains. The search and rescue effort was concentrating on one residence that was identified as having the highest probability of finding the remains of the four individuals,” Constable Moskaluk said of the search effort.
Officials said that during strategic excavation work the body of a man, believed to be Valentie Webber, was found near the foundations of a home swept away in the slide.
Constable Moskaluk said the families of the missing had been given the sad news.
“Our condolences to the Webber family for their loss, and again we offer our support and condolences to the family of Petra Frehse.”
A recovery effort continued for the bodies of the three women, but search and rescue teams were being pulled from the site as the operation transitioned into a coroner’s investigation.
“Searches for the remaining missing people are underway,” said Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe, who called it a “very, very difficult time” for their loved ones.
Ms. Lapointe was at the site on Sunday and said it was “a priority to locate the deceased.”
Identification specialists from the coroner’s office were at the site to assist with recovery efforts.
“The B.C. Coroner’s service will do what we can to assist in not only recovery of the remains but in investigating these deaths,” Ms. Lapointe said.
Premier Christy Clark extended her condolences to the families of the missing on Sunday night.
“I was saddened to be advised that the mission at Johnsons Landing has now been re-classified as a recovery. At times like these, it is difficult to give up hoping for a miracle,” she said in a statement.
“Communities and governments have provided every possible response to this disaster, and nature has conspired against us in many ways, even as work continues on the site.”
Ms. Clark also pledged her government’s support to the community of Johnsons Landing, which has been devastated by the slide.
The news of the grim discovery came with weather deteriorating in southeast B.C. where a late melting, record snow pack and weeks of heavy rains have saturated soil. The situation was underscored by a weekend mudslide that closed Highway 93 near Fairmont Hot Springs. The latest slide triggered the rescue of at least one person, but there were no reported injuries.
For Richard Ortega, who made a dramatic solo attempt to find survivors the day after the Johnsons Landing slide, the search results Sunday were not a surprise.
Mr. Ortega said he could sense earlier in the day that the search operation had “shifted from rescue to recovery” and he had been expecting the worst.
Mr. Ortega became involved in the search effort at just after 4 a.m. Friday, after a frantic plea for help from the mother of the two missing young women.
Lynn Migdal, whose two daughters and former husband were missing in the landslide, which swept past the edge of Mr. Ortega’s property, was calling from Florida, sure that somehow she had heard one of her girls calling out.
“Whoa … hang on a second here,” says Mr. Ortega, his inner balance shaken by the recollection of that dramatic phone call.
“I know her to be slightly psychic. She said she felt one of her daughters might still be alive in the building and she didn’t want to wait for the officials to get their act together,” he said.
Mr. Ortega, with his wife, Angele, runs Johnson’s Landing Retreat Center in the picturesque settlement on Kootenay Lake. The retreat focuses on self-awareness, and Ms. Migdal has stayed there in the past.
“She said, ‘Can you please go down and see if you can find anything,’” he said, in an interview Sunday morning, as about 70 rescue workers were conducting a grid search around the home shared by Mr. Webber, 60, and his daughters. The search was also probing for a missing neighbour, Petra Frehse, 64, a German tourist who spent her summers in the community.
After the slide roared down a creek bed on Thursday morning, search and rescue crews had assembled, but had been cautious because of concerns another landslide might come down at any moment. They did not reach the Webber home until Friday evening.
At dawn on Friday, however, not sure when the official search would begin, Mr. Ortega set out alone.
“I just knew what I had to do,” he said.
It was cool and barely light when he got in his truck and drove a short distance to the once woody vale where Mr. Webber and Ms. Frehse had their homes.
“The road ended in a wall of mud with broken trees sticking out in haphazard directions,” Mr. Ortega said. “There was a deafening silence. … It was too early for the birds to be singing. You could hear the creek running in the distance.”
Officials believe an avalanche went into the creek, created a dam, which later burst, unleashing a torrent of mud, boulders and broken trees.
Looking out over the rubble field, Mr. Ortega saw the twisted roof of the Webber’s home, but otherwise he wouldn’t have recognized what, the day before, had been such a tranquil setting his wife called it a fairy dell.
“The landscape had changed to a scene of destruction,” he said.
Mr. Ortega set out across the debris field, at times jumping from one shattered tree trunk to the next.
When he got to the roof of the house he scrambled around the building, knocking and calling out. Then he slipped through a gap where a wall had split open.
“I was in a blue-coloured room. There were nautical charts. I think it was Val’s room … because he was a seaman,” said Mr. Ortega.
He crawled in to the building as far as he could.
“I tapped. Listened for breathing or crying or anything, any kinds of signs of life. There was absolutely nothing … just household items scattered here and there. And silence,” he said.
Feeling a “kind of hopelessness” Mr. Ortega retreated after about 30 minutes and went to call Ms. Migdal.
“I told her I didn’t find anything,” he said sadly. “The mother of two young girls. You can imagine how she felt.”
With a report from Canadian Press
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