British Columbia

Survivor of Cleveland Dam water surge decades ago recalls his narrow escape

Wilson Williams was 18 in 1997 when he heard the roar and scrambled to shore, just in time to escape a sudden surge of water from the Cleveland Dam.

'I just heard a roaring, thundering sound come down from above and all I seen was black come down'

The Cleveland Dam, located in North Vancouver and built in 1954, holds back the 271-hectare man-made Capilano Lake. On Oct. 1, 2020, the dam unexpectedly opened during maintenance and water rushed down the Capilano River, killing a man. Another man is still missing. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Wilson Williams was 18 in 1997 when he heard the roar and scrambled to shore, just in time to escape a sudden surge of water from the Cleveland Dam.

The Squamish Nation councillor was taken back to that day last Thursday when a sudden torrent of water surged from the dam in North Vancouver, B.C., sending about a half-dozen anglers downriver scrambling to shore. One man died in  the torrent and a search continues for a younger man, believed to be the dead man's son.

A full investigation by several agencies, including the BC Coroners Service is underway to determine how the sudden release of water happened and how to prevent it from happening again because last week's incident involving the Cleveland Dam was not the first.

In 1997, Williams said he was also fishing the Capilano River below the dam when he heard a roar. He said he only had seconds to get to safety.

"I just heard a roaring, thundering sound come down from above and all I seen was black come down. I maybe had 15-20 seconds to run to shore and by then the water had just caught my legs," said Williams.

Shaken and wet, Williams said he caught a transit bus home. He described how the bus driver took one look at the bedraggled young man who had lost all his fishing tackle in the traumatic experience and offered him a free ride.

When Williams heard that a similar incident Oct. 1 had turned fatal, the word "malfunction" stuck in his mind.

"It triggered me. That's the word we heard back in 1997 when it happened to me. You can imagine my mother being very angry and wanting to get some kind of response," he said,

But he can't recall any response or any changes being made.

In 41 years as a North Shore Search and Rescue volunteer Allan McMordie says he's rescued "more than a few" people due to Capilano River water level fluctuations. He said often anglers get trapped on a sandbar. But he can't recall anything as dramatic as the 3.5-metre rise and fall last Thursday.

Williams said he has since learned from talking over the years with people familiar with the dam that this belief that there was a siren in the 1950s that warned people — is a myth.

In the early 2000s, there were discussions about how to upgrade and modernize the dam built in 1954 that had a drum gate that was prone to the occasional overflow, according to Paul Archibald, the administrator for GVRD systems operations at the time.

Jerry Dobrovolny, the current commissioner of Metro Vancouver which operates the dam, confirmed Friday that despite discussions about it there was never an alarm installed on the dam that sounded when the spillway gate was raised or lowered at the Cleveland Dam.

But there are many such sirens on dams overseen by B.C. Hydro.

The power authority uses 24-hour instrumentation monitoring systems, independent safety reviews and public warning systems including sirens, signs and barriers at all facilities where water flow could endanger the public.

"The sirens are intended to warn river users of sudden or unplanned water flow changes. This warning is for people who are within the river channel either swimming, fishing, rafting, kayaking, or walking or standing near the water flow. The sirens, which have a whooping sound, engage to advise people to move out of the river channel immediately until the increased water flow passes by," said spokesperson Kevin Aquino in an email Monday.

A Capilano River flow and water level charts shows there was a spike in water levels (at right) around 2 p.m. PT on Oct. 1. (Metro Vancouver)

B.C. Hydro upgraded many of its dam safety procedures after a tragic Ontario incident. In July of 2002, a month after the double fatality in Ontario, the B.C. Workers' Compensation Board ordered the Greater Vancouver Regional District to make the Cleveland Dam safer by the end of the year.

The Ontario tragedy involved 2 deaths on the Madawaska River near Calabogie Ontario  on June 23, 2002 — weeks after Ontario Hydro deregulated electricity stations and handed over dam controls to a computerized dispatch system.

On that day, the Barrett Chute dam surged, surprising 20 sunbathers and swimmers, and drowning two people —37-year-old Cyndi Cadieux and her son Aaron, 7, last seen in her arms before the pair were swept down a rocky spillway.

Swift water rescue technicians with the District of North Vancouver Fire Rescue Services help a woman who was caught on a sandbar in the Capilano River as water rushed by on both sides last week. (DNV Fire Rescue Services)

A senior plant manager and a worker with the Ontario Power Generation plant were sued for criminal negligence causing death but were eventually exonerated in 2006. 

But that incident changed how that dam and others were operated — many adding signs, fencing and downstream visual monitoring using helicopters and other methods before any sluice gates were opened — as sirens were deemed ineffective.

In his 84-page ruling on the Barrett Chute case, Ontario Superior Court Judge Paul Bélanger said the 2002 tragedy "illustrates vividly" why laws were strengthened to avoid a similar outcome.

In 2003, the law involving corporate wrongdoing was toughened, expanding the number of corporate officials whose behaviour can result in a corporation being found guilty of criminal negligence causing death.

Anglers fish along the banks of the Capilano River Oct. 2, one day after the Cleveland Dam released an unexpected rush of water that sent many people who had been fishing running for their lives. (Ben Nelms/CBC)


Yvette Brend is a Vancouver journalist. or on Twitter or Instagram @ybrend

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