British Columbia

1 confirmed dead as rescue teams continue searching debris from B.C. mudslide

One woman was confirmed dead Tuesday after a mudslide swept across a portion of B.C.'s Highway 99, the first confirmed fatality as a result of widespread flooding and landslides across the southern half of the province.

Witness recounts 'complete panic' and rescue efforts

Fallen trees and debris are pictured on Monday after a flood swept through the area near Lillooet, B.C. One person was killed after a landslide rushed across Highway 99, according to RCMP. (B.C. Ministry of Transportation/Reuters)

One woman was confirmed dead on Tuesday after a mudslide swept across a portion of B.C.'s Highway 99, the first confirmed fatality as a result of widespread flooding and landslides across the southern half of the province in recent days.

Search-and-rescue crews recovered the woman's body late Monday, according to Lillooet RCMP.

Staff Sgt. Janelle Shoihet said officers still haven't confirmed the total number of people and vehicles unaccounted for, but investigators have received reports of at least two other people who are missing.

She said other drivers might have been buried in the slide, which happened on a stretch of highway about 280 kilometres north of Vancouver, as record-breaking rainfall and high winds hammered parts of the province over the weekend and into Monday.

Witness estimates for the number of cars swept away range from three to as many as 10.

'It was like a tsunami was coming'

Kathie Rennie saw the landslide come down in front of her, between Lillooet and Pemberton. Traffic on the highway had come to a stop and several people were out of their vehicles just before a torrent of mud, trees and debris came crashing down the hillside.

"No sooner do we get back into our vehicles, the people that were in front of us are just screaming and running. The look on their faces, it was like a tsunami was coming. It was the scariest thing that I've ever seen," she told CBC News in an interview. 

Kathie Rennie, pictured at home in Maple Ridge, B.C., on Tuesday, saw the landslide that destroyed a portion of Highway 99 near Lillooet on Monday. (Sarah Penton/CBC)

"I just turned around, and I'm just watching the whole side of the mountain coming down and taking out these cars … everything just being swept away. Just complete panic."

Rennie, her husband and their nine-year-old son sat frozen in their truck. She said they watched three cars being swept up in the mud, with at least five people inside.

Once the sliding stopped, she said, dozens of people who weren't hit by the slide started grabbing anything they could to rescue the others.

"It was the kindest thing I've ever seen.… Everybody just came together looking for shovels, chainsaws, crowbars, tow ropes — whatever we had in our trucks, just to go running up the hill once it had stopped to try and get these people out," she said, speaking from her home in Maple Ridge.

Rennie said two women were able to get out of their car on their own. Two men were able to crawl through the mud out of their half-buried vehicle, after strangers pried open the doors.

"And then the third car … they didn't find it," she said.

Jukka Tuisku, another traveller on his way home to Vancouver from Lillooet, was also stranded on the road after the slide. He said those who were rescued were able to walk themselves to safety, but everybody was shaken.

"I walked a gentleman to a vehicle where he took refuge to warm up. He was freezing, of course, entirely covered in mud. It was quite something," he said in an interview.

At a news conference Tuesday, Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth offered condolences to the family of the woman who was killed.

"I want to take this opportunity to ask anyone who was a witness to the event, or who believes their loved one is missing and has not yet been able to make contact, to reach out to the Pemberton and Lillooet RCMP detachments."

Second search underway on Highway 7

Highway 99 is a major route in B.C.'s South Coast region, running north from Vancouver, through Whistler up to the Lillooet area before connecting to other major highways.

Shoihet said police are asking anyone who witnessed the slide or believes their loved one is missing to call the RCMP.

A similar search is underway to the southeast, in the Highway 7 area near Agassiz, B.C., where two mudslides left people stranded Sunday night.

Jonathan Gormick, information officer with the Vancouver Heavy Urban Search and Rescue Team, said the roadway has been cleared of potentially trapped vehicles or people, but teams are now searching the slide's debris field.

Officials said 275 people who spent the night in their vehicles after being caught between the two slides were lifted to safety by helicopter on Monday.

With files from Sarah Penton, Rafferty Baker and The Canadian Press