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Cormorant pilot touches down with a broken hydro pole less than a metre from one side of the spinning main rotor, and trees no further away on the other

Crew members from Royal Canadian Air Force 442 Squadron lead some of over 300 motorists stranded by mudslides towards a CH-149 Cormorant helicopter for their evacuation, in Agassiz, B.C., on Nov. 15.RCAF/Reuters

Riley McDowall was driving home to Surrey last Sunday from Kelowna, B.C., after his 14-year-old son played in a Remembrance Day weekend hockey tournament. The team’s performance was forgettable. The drive back will never be.

“Horrendous” rain and road closings forced Mr. McDowall to take detours that eventually put them on Highway 7, where traffic came to a dead stop near the town of Agassiz. It was about 7 p.m., and just ahead a mudslide had sluiced down from the steep slopes on their right, bulldozing at least half a dozen vehicles off the road. At almost the same time behind them, another slide crashed down a creek drainage and spilled onto the highway, cutting off about 100 cars from retreating toward the city of Hope,

On the other side of the skinny two-lane road, also called the Lougheed Highway, the Fraser River was rising and creeping toward the trapped motorists.

It was a chaotic night in British Columbia everywhere the extreme weather event known as an “atmospheric river” touched down. In the Agassiz area, the Heavy Urban Search and Rescue (HUSAR) task force made a quick assessment of the situation on Highway 7. Based in Vancouver, the HUSAR team – one of four in Canada – specializes in treacherous rescues involving major structural collapses from events such as earthquakes and landslides.

With the night already pitch-black, it was determined that trying to lead the stranded motorists on foot across the slide closest to Agassiz – a 100-metre tangle of broken trees, rocks and at least six mangled vehicles – was too dangerous: The slide was still moving.

Braving treacherous conditions, rescuers with the Agassiz Fire Department and Hope Search and Rescue had already removed 12 people from the debris on the outer edges of the slides. There were injuries but no fatalities.

But many of those trapped between the slides had one thing going for them: Though the rain created new, thundering waterfalls all night long along the cliffs, unnervingly close to their vehicles, the stranded motorists happened to be stopped bumper-to-bumper alongside a rocky, stable bluff. “Those vehicles were in about the safest place they could be,” the HUSAR team’s spokesman, Captain Jonathan Gormick, told The Globe and Mail. The rescue would wait until Monday morning.

More than 300 people spent the night in their vehicles under an unrelenting downpour that has since flooded much of the cities of Abbotsford and Merritt and the town of Princeton. Bridges, railways and roads have been destroyed throughout Southern B.C., prompting the province to declare a state of emergency.

The next morning, the trapped motorists caught bits of news reports that RCAF helicopters were coming to rescue them. Some couldn’t believe it.

“The conditions and the location we were in,” Mr. McDowall recounted in an e-mail, “really made the possibility of airlift unlikely. My belief was that it would be too dangerous to attempt anything like that.”

Climate Scientist and Professor Simon Donner explains what the phenomenon 'atmospheric river' is and why the one that hit Western Canada dumped record breaking amounts of rain in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia.

But what unfolded next was an unprecedented rescue of civilians involving the crews of three CH-149 Cormorant helicopters from 442 Transport and Rescue Squadron based at CFB Comox. It was all part of a Canadian military effort dubbed Operation Lentus, which involved working closely with firefighters, police and civilian ground search and rescue teams.

In a statement to The Globe, Lieutenant-Colonel Jean Leroux, the commanding officer of 442, said “the response to the situation on Monday was the largest mass evacuation the squadron has executed in decades.”

That Monday morning at CFB Comox, on Vancouver Island, Captain Jonathan Groten started his shift at 7 a.m. He was working out on an elliptical machine – exercise keeps him fit for the physical intensity of flying a rescue helicopter and helps him deal with the stress.

“We had seen the news about the flooding but didn’t realize the full extent at that point,” Capt. Groten said. An RCAF pilot for 10 years, he joined 442 a year ago after flying with the 103 Search and Rescue Squadron in Gander, NL, for five years.

Then came word of the stranded motorists, though it was unclear at first how many people were involved. What was clear was that 442, the military’s only air rescue squadron on the West Coast, was needed.

Lieutenant-Colonel Jean Leroux, commanding officer of 442, said “the response to the situation on Monday was the largest mass evacuation the squadron has executed in decades.”RCAF/Reuters

At 9:20 a.m., Capt. Groten and his crew, which included his co-pilot, a flight engineer and two search and rescue technicians, lifted off in their Cormorant, Rescue 910, for Agassiz.

The 233-kilometre flight normally takes an hour. Not this time. “When we got to Lions Gate Bridge” in Vancouver, Capt. Groten said, “we hit a complete wall of cloud and had to backtrack, climb into controlled airspace, then fly on instruments because of the weather.”

With the help of Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre Victoria, Rescue 910 punched through the 10 kilometres or so of thick cloud, intense rain and wild winds hitting 50 knots. Landing briefly in Agassiz, Capt. Groten’s crew unloaded some gear to lighten their chopper, then picked up 17 members of the HUSAR team.

Around 11:30 a.m., with the HUSAR team aboard to help provide medical treatment, feed and shepherd the stranded motorists aboard, Capt. Groten flew the six minutes to the slide zone.

Sitting in her Corolla, where she’d spent a harrowing night with her 12-year-old daughter, Nikola, Martina Martinkova saw that first banana-yellow Cormorant fly past her and the others stuck between the landslides, which she estimated were about two kilometres apart.

Late Sunday night, a CBC journalist had told Ms. Martinkova during an interview that military helicopters were supposed to be coming the following morning. With the steep slopes on one side and the river now running right along the side of the narrow two-lane highway, “I thought, no, impossible,” she said.

She and her daughter were desperate to get out. They’d been suddenly hemmed in by the landslides on their way back home to North Vancouver after visiting a cousin in Kelowna. As night fell, Nikola suffered an anxiety attack, complaining to her mother that she couldn’t breathe. Ms. Martinkova managed to calm her down. “She was brave after that.”

Capt. Groten and his crew, which included his co-pilot, a flight engineer and two search and rescue technicians, lifted off in their Cormorant, Rescue 910, for Agassiz.RCAF/Reuters

A crew member from the Royal Canadian Air Force's 442 Squadron leads some of over 300 motorists stranded by mudslides towards a CH-149 Cormorant helicopter for their evacuation, in Agassiz, B.C.RCAF/Reuters

They had only two mandarin oranges, some grapes, some Coke and a bit of water. They put the water bottle on the top of the car to collect rain but only got enough for two sips. Going to the bathroom was tricky.

“You couldn’t go to the bushes because there was just a cliff down and a cliff up,” said Ms. Martinkova, who owns a cleaning business in North Vancouver. So they used the front and rear doors of the car to make a “night bathroom,” holding an umbrella to cover each other. “A lot of water was floating down the road, so it washed everything away right away. I guess you could say we had running water,” said Ms. Martinkova, managing to make a joke about the harrowing night.

She watched, elated at first, as the Cormorant approached. “But you could see they had a problem to find a landing spot. It took the pilot five minutes, trying to fit in. The wind was strong.”

“Oh no, oh no, he can’t land!” she thought.

Capt. Groten moved his big Cormorant carefully up and down the slide area, looking for a possible “LZ” – a landing zone. Finally, with one of his search and rescue technicians dangling upside down from a side door and using his headset to guide Capt. Groten down atop a slab of mud riddled with debris, the helicopter, buffeted by wind, touched down.

A broken hydro pole sat less than a metre from one side of the spinning main rotor, and trees were no further away on the other. “It was probably the tightest confined area I ever landed in,” Capt. Groten said.

Once the HUSAR team deployed from that first chopper, Capt. Gormick said, they began cleaning debris by hand to create a better LZ, nestled right into a pocket at the edge of the most westerly slide, for subsequent landings.

By then it was clear that, with so many stranded people, the rescue might make the RCAF’s record books. Three Cormorants would be needed before nightfall Monday night. Two more took off from Comox.

Warrant Officer Matthew Davidson was on the third, Rescue 906. His Cormorant, 22.8 metres in length and with an 18.5-metre rotor span, had been quickly stripped of its usual rescue gear to decrease its weight and increase the space aboard.

In normal rescue operations, in addition to a usual crew of five, the Cormorants can carry another five passengers. But with gear removed, Rescue 906 carried as many as 25 anxious motorists at a time for each six-minute flight to the Agassiz Agricultural Fairgrounds. There, local volunteers greeted them and gave them and their pets snacks and blankets. There were toys for the 50 children airlifted from the slide zone.

With a crew of seven, Rescue 906 included Elsa Gilroy, an air operations support technician, and Master Corporal Ben Rassmussen, a search and rescue technician. They were dropped off inside the zone to instruct evacuees on when and how to board the helicopters. “Getting those two there was definitely essential,” said WO Davidson, “because then we could just really start maximizing things.” Rescue 906 would, in six sorties, take 131 people and a number of dogs out of the slide zone.

Once the main LZ was established, the three Cormorants rotated every 10 or 15 minutes to airlift the next batch of passengers. “I should give a very special thanks to the Chilliwack airport, because they were incredible,” said Capt. Groten. “They kept us running. They gave us hot refuelling, which allowed our helicopters to keep operating.”

A Royal Canadian Air Force 442 Squadron CH-149 Cormorant helicopter lands during the rescue of over 300 motorists stranded by mudslides near Agassiz, B.C.RCAF/Reuters

By last light, WO Davidson said, all 311 stranded people were rescued, as were 26 dogs and one cat.

Among them, Mr. McDowall, his son, Carter, Ms. Martinkova and Nikola. The short flight “was freaky. I was so scared,” Ms. Martinkova said. “That was our first experience in a helicopter. I was, like, I didn’t die in the landslide, now I will be first who dies in the helicopter. I kept my eyes closed. I didn’t like it at all. But I was happy.”

Of the rescuers she said: “I will admire these people for the rest of my life. They risk their lives to help others. It’s unbelievable. I am so much in love with those people.”

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