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Avalanches: New Year's nightmare

The side of a mountain suddenly collapses, transforming a pristine white blanket into a raging wall of destruction and death. An avalanche used to be considered an unpredictable, and rarely survivable, force of nature. But with each tragedy experts have learned more about why avalanches happen, how their impact can be minimized and what people can do to survive their terrible force.

Deadly avalanches don't strike only backcountry adventurers in British Columbia. The remote northern Quebec community of Kangiqsualujjuaq is trying to come to terms with a disaster in the wee hours of the new year. Snow suddenly roars down a cliff and through the wall of a gymnasium full of people having a party. Five children and four adults perish. Rescuers fight through grief as they dig out the bodies, including a mother with her baby still in a sack on her back.

In this CBC Television clip, we hear that it was an accident waiting to happen. The school was built on the exact site of a past major avalanche. "There will be more avalanches here, no question about it," an avalanche expert says. But for the Inuit of Kangiqsualujjuaq, the most pressing task at hand is a mass funeral in a municipal garage. 
• The avalanche struck Satuumavik School just after 1:30 a.m. on Jan. 1, 1999. About 400 people were inside. According to an account that principal Jean Leduc gave Maclean's magazine, a dance had just finished and children were playing in the middle of the room. There had also been prayers and hopes for joy in the year ahead and a wish to put behind the community grief from two drownings in 1998.

• Principal Leduc continued: "And then — nobody can ever adequately describe the incredibly powerful wave that covered everyone in its path and reduced to shreds the wall that protected us from the storm." Five of the children who died were under the age of eight, including an 18-month-old. Twenty-five people were injured.

• In April 2000, a coroner who probed the disaster said experts who investigated a less serious avalanche in the same spot six years earlier had warned it was possible the school would be struck again. Coroner Jacques Bérubé said school officials should have heeded the warnings but he stopped short of pointing blame at those who built the school on a known avalanche spot and allowed it to remain open.

• The coroner also said bad weather triggered the slide from a ledge overloaded with snow. He reported that Northern Quebec communities were ill-equipped to deal with such emergencies. "When the municipality of Kangiqsualujjuaq sent out a call for help, no one in (nearby) Kuujjuaq had an emergency plan," Jacques Bérubé noted in his report."The hospital had an emergency plan designed to deal with airplane crashes," but few knew how to implement it.

• The school and homes near the avalanche spot have all been relocated. In October 2001, the Quebec government announced it was offering $3 million to expropriate about 30 homes in avalanche-risk zones in 14 communities including Kangiqsualujjuaq.

• In August 2003, during a visit to the community by Quebec Premier Jean Charest, Maggie Emundlak, who was mayor at the time of the avalanche and is featured in the CBC Television clip, told Montreal's Gazette: "We don't want to keep thinking about [the avalanche], but on New Year's we always do. It's supposed to be a day of celebration but, in the back of our minds, it will always be there."
Medium: Television
Program: The National
Broadcast Date: Jan. 8, 1999
Guest(s): Maggie Emundlak, Michael Gordon, David Oothpik
Host: Brian Stewart
Reporter: Lynne Robson
Duration: 6:40

Last updated: March 15, 2012

Page consulted on December 6, 2013

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