News / Canada

Survivors pulled bodies out of deadly B.C. avalanche; five dead identified

Mason said he had been doing search and rescue work in the area for 30 years and had never seen an avalanche kill so many people.

A Search and Rescue helicopter heads toward the area where a large avalanche struck near Revelstoke, B.C., in this Sunday, March 14, 2010 file photo. Five snowmobilers have died in a

Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

A Search and Rescue helicopter heads toward the area where a large avalanche struck near Revelstoke, B.C., in this Sunday, March 14, 2010 file photo. Five snowmobilers have died in a "very large'' avalanche near the interior community of McBride, B.C., prompting a rescue and recovery operation.

MCBRIDE, B.C. - Survivors of a deadly avalanche in northeastern British Columbia looked shaken as they arrived at McBride's airport Friday, shortly after pulling bodies of fellow snowmobilers from the slide, says a search and rescue official.

Dale Mason of Robson Valley Search and Rescue said six men were flown by helicopter from the mountain to the airport, where they were met by police and paramedics. Some were injured and had little to say, he said.

“They all had a pretty bad day,” he said. “It's a pretty traumatic event.”

Five bodies were recovered from the disaster in the Renshaw area near McBride, about 210 kilometres southeast of Prince George. Families of the victims were being notified and the B.C. Coroners Service expected to release their identities on Saturday.

Mason said survivors pulled bodies from the snow before rescue crews arrived. There were three separate groups snowmobiling at the time, so he didn't know how well survivors knew the dead.

“They located and dug them out very quickly. They did an excellent job themselves,” he said.

Asked how difficult it is to extract a body from an avalanche, Mason replied, “It's sort of like shovelling concrete.”

Mason said he had been doing search and rescue work in the area for 30 years and had never seen an avalanche kill so many people.

He described the area where the avalanche occurred as designated snowmobiling backcountry without an in-bounds or out-of-bounds area. He said there was a “considerable” avalanche hazard on Friday and there were warning signs posted at trailheads.

RCMP said Friday night that it was too soon to confirm that everyone was accounted for, but Mason said on Saturday he believed no one was missing.

Mason described the search effort as “fantastic.” Authorities first learned of the slide from the activations of two separate GPS beacons, which are carried by backcountry enthusiasts.

A helicopter was dispatched and rescue crews were on scene swiftly because two crew members had been snowmobiling in the area just before the avalanche, RCMP have said.

One person was taken to hospital in stable condition, while another injured person declined to go to hospital, said B.C. Ambulance Service.

At least eight snowmobiles were lost in the slide.

The tragedy has prompted an outpouring of support from the snowmobiling community. Ron Willert, who runs an online forum called snowandmud.com, said the disaster hit “too close to home.”

“McBride is my backyard, I spend many weekends there all winter and summer,” he said in an email.

A leading expert said the window to rescue someone whose been buried is about 10 minutes, as the fallen snow hardens like concrete.

Pascal Haegli, Simon Fraser University's research chair in avalanche risk management, said it's nearly impossible to dig yourself out of an avalanche once you've been buried, and without proper rescue equipment, chances of survival nearly disappear.

“Once the avalanche comes to a stop, it sets like concrete, very quickly,” he said. “It's not the fluffy powder snow you have in mind.”

People should not rely on search and rescue crews in the event of an avalanche and instead make themselves aware of snow conditions before they go into the backcountry, Haegli said.

He said that he hasn't heard exactly what happened in this case, but that human-triggered avalanches can occur when people disturb different layers of snow, called snowpack. For instance, if a thin layer of icy snow sitting on top of looser snow is disturbed, it can cause all the snow to tumble down.

Karl Klassen of Avalanche Canada has said that the avalanche appears to have been human-triggered, but he did not elaborate. He said rain and snow over the last few days followed by clearing and cooling on Friday may have produced stresses in the snowpack.

Interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose and NDP leader Tom Mulcair both offered their condolences to victims' families.

Two men were also killed in the McBride area in March 2015. They were part of a group of four Albertans who had been snowmobiling near the community.