Canada

Terror, relief in search for Canadian in N.Z.

Dan Briceno of Toronto felt 15 minutes of "complete terror" when he read online that his brother-in-law had died in New Zealand's earthquake.

Online tools help and hinder tracking of Waterloo, Ont., man

Daniel Collings, 23, of Waterloo was in Christchurch, N.Z., when the quake struck. ((Courtesy of family))

Dan Briceno felt 15 minutes of "complete terror" when he read online that his brother-in-law had died in New Zealand's earthquake.

"You start to think about the last thing you said to them, the last time you hugged the person, the last time you said 'I love you,' the last time you saw them," the Torontonian said over the phone in a shaky voice.

Like thousands of people in New Zealand and around the world, Briceno posted an appeal on Google People Finder on Monday night  to find out whether anyone knew the status of his brother-in-law, Daniel Collings, 23, of Waterloo, Ont., who was in Christchurch at the time of the deadly earthquake.

Soon after, someone posted Collings had died.

"You have to believe it at first," Briceno said. 

But soon, he started to question it, especially because the commenter had left only one word — "Sadly" — in the comments field.

He deleted the post and put up another on the Google tool, where more than 9,000 unverified records have been added to date.

Another member of the family, Collings's uncle, had read the same People Finder posting about the young man's death and had passed the information to a grandmother. Fortunately, neither the uncle nor Briceno went to Collings's parents with what turned out to be a false account.

"If I'd gotten that information, I would've been devastated," said his father, John Collings. "It's just unbelievable that somebody could do that. It's quite heartless."

Briceno continued his dogged social media sleuthing, eventually tracking down a Dutch tweet mentioning the hostel, KIWI Basecamp, where his brother-in-law had been staying. He translated the tweet, which said everyone at the hostel was fine, but he wanted to know more.

Briceno contacted the girl and sent her a picture of Collings. She asked around and found someone who recognized Collings.

'Couldn't stop smiling'

"At that point, we heard that he was fine," Briceno said. "But at the same time, I couldn't actually be sure. We'd already been told he was dead, so which one was true?"

Nothing beats first-hand information, and about 1 a.m. ET Tuesday, Briceno and his wife, Beth, got the verification they were needed when they saw Collings pop up on Skype, the internet video-conferencing application.

Canadian contacts

Friends and relatives seeking information on Canadian citizens believed to be in the affected areas should contact the Emergency Operations Centre at the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade by calling 1-800-387-3124 or 613-996-8885. They may also send an email to sos@international.gc.ca.

"It was amazing," Briceno said of the conversation. "We couldn't stop smiling. We were just so relieved."

Collings told them he was in the shower when the 6.3-magnitude temblor hit Christchurch. He said he thought someone was knocking loudly at the bathroom door. Hours later, he managed to secure an internet connection on his laptop using backup power — his only way to contact loved ones since many telephone lines were down or busy.

For Briceno, the entire incident illustrated the highs and lows of using online sources.

"You could see the amazing resource that the internet is and what it could do to find somebody," Briceno said. "At the same time, somebody can just ruin your hopes because they're trying to get a laugh."

The Toronto video editor said he first witnessed how useful social media communities can be while watching people track loved ones after the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake that devastated Haiti. But this time around, he also learned about the possible disadvantages.

"Google People Finder is a great tool, but it's not perfect — and I don't know if it ever can be."