07/12/2012 05:00 EDT | Updated 09/11/2012 05:12 EDT

Johnson's Landing, B.C. Landslide Cuts Destructive Path, Potential Victims


JOHNSONS LANDING, B.C. - Roland Procter was enjoying a good read on his garden deck Thursday morning when an unmistakable noise shattered his peace, and within seconds, several of his neighbours' lives.

"It was a prolonged 20 to 30-second rumbling that was unlike any rumbling I've ever heard," the retired doctor said from his home in Johnson's Landing in southeastern British Columbia.

"I realized right away there was only one thing it could be."

Procter listened from only 500 metres away as a massive torrent of mud gushed down from Gar Creek, sweeping up large trees and snapping them like toothpicks as the muck engulfed the southern half of his tiny village.

At least three homes were destroyed in the powerful deluge, which had search and rescue crews frantically digging for four people who are unaccounted for. Rescuers fear they may have been buried in the late morning slide.

Equipment and road crews were dispatched to the scene, about 70 kilometres northeast of Nelson, B.C., to help responders who were expected to keep working throughout the night.

It's not yet been confirmed whether the residents were inside when the landslide rolled over their homes.

"RCMP and search and rescue emergency responders on the site are trying to determine whether they were out of the community or in their homes. We don't know that information," said Bill Macpherson, a public information officer with Central Kootenay Regional District.

"It is a very remote area, there is no cell service and we're waiting to get back more definitive word."

But Procter, safe at his home of 33 years in the northern portion of the village, described the situation as grim.

After the disaster occurred, he scrambled through thick bush downhill to the beach with another neighbour to investigate the home of a close friend.

"It's completely crushed and buried and the debris pile there is probably ten metres high and 100 metres across," said the 65-year-old, as he smoked a cigarette and used a battery-run phone.

Electricity is down in the town, and many portions are now inaccessible as the main road in has been covered.

"The whole landscape has changed, so there's no reference point as to where things should be."

Procter feared the worst when he first called out for his friend and received no reply, but was later relieved to learn she had left for a nearby town just a little earlier.

"You couldn't survive that," he said. "But I do believe that some other houses have been buried that did have some community members in it."

Among the likely victims is a father and his two daughters in their 20s, and a vacationer from Germany who has travelled to B.C. for some 25 years, he said.

He said the community of 35 people is close-knit, though residents tend to have so much upkeep of property to do they don't always take time to socialize.

"Other than we'd go down to the beach in the evenings and have a quick swim to clean up and have a little chat and shell peas or something," he said. "But we're not going to do that for a while because there's no beach, it's just massive mud and big logs sticking out of it."

Multiple helicopters, two search-dog teams, under water recover divers, a landslide expert and a geotechnician were assisting in the search and recovery efforts.

Seven workers were also sent from nearby Castlegar to erect two towers of emergency lighting and two portable toilets so that rescuers can work as long as necessary. Road crews with more equipment were on scene too.

"It sounds like a piece of the mountain came down," said Kevin Chernoff, general manager of Trowelex Rentals and Sales.

The crews are setting up in an area 20 kilometres away from ground zero.

"The site is very congested and still very unstable," he added.

Macpherson couldn't explain why the earth gave way.

"It's been sunny and warm, so (the slide was) somewhat unexpected," he said. "I don't have any cause or reason for why the landslide occurred."

The slide occurred at the end of the road on the north arm of Kootenay Lake.

Last month, the lake reached its highest peak in 40 years due to heavy rainfall and accumulation of run-off.

But Macpherson said at this point he doesn't believe there's any connection.

An emergency operations centre was set up in the city of Nelson.

— Written by Tamsyn Burgmann in Vancouver

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