Major earthquake gives real-life drill to B.C. first responders
At 8:03 on Saturday night, one minute before the worst quake in 60 years hit the west coast, on-call seismologist John Cassidy was on his hands and knees, sweating and straining as he ripped carpet up in his Sidney home.
In Queen Charlotte City, volunteer fire chief Larry Duke had big plans. It was time to get dressed for the biggest fire department fundraiser of the year: the Halloween dance. Doors were set to open at 10 p.m. and he was going as Napoleon Dynamite. “I had everything laid out, the wig, glasses the moon boots, the vote-for-Pedro T-shirt.”
He had just given his six-year-old son Riley a teaspoon of cough medicine and tucked him back into bed.
Then he felt the rumble.
At precisely 8:04, the vibrations pulsed through Haida Gwaii and Prince Rupert, bouncing residents as far away Terrace and Kamloops.
In Terrace, reporter Anna Killen was in the bathroom, just starting to do her makeup for her costume: evil gypsy unicorn. She had just affixed the black horn to her head when she saw the mirror move. “I was still on my first glass of wine. I thought I was having an anxiety attack,” she said. She ran into the living room, the vertical blinds were swaying and rattling like a paranormal event.
Back in Queen Charlotte City, Mayor Carol Kulesha was cosying up to watch some TV. She had settled in, she might not go to fire department dance but if she did, a Bedouin dress, her go-to costume, was ready. Her Manchester terrier, Chili, was at her feet.
Then it hit.
“It felt like a freight train was coming through my house. It was that loud.”
Chili leaped up and stared at her. Do something.
The 60-seconds of shaking felt like minutes to Duke.
“We’re used to small quakes, they feel like trucks going by. But this one continued to build and build.”
Little Riley ran out of his bedroom crying. Duke grabbed him. His first impulse was to go into the living room, which had a high ceiling, then his training kicked in. “We went under the dining room table. Then the power went out, which added to the scariness of the whole thing.”
In the basement, his wife was about to start a yoga class with some friends. They fumbled toward a doorway and clung together.
Kathy Goalder, the wharfinger at the Sandspit marina was unwinding with a game of darts at the Bunkhouse when she felt the shaking.
She thought people were partying inside, jumping up and down on the floor, making it shake.
But the tremor continued. And continued. And continued.
She ran home to find the bricks stacked around her wood stove had fallen over and water slopped out of the aquarium.
Goalder runs the marina in the tiny town that sits on a sand spit, flanked on either side by beaches.
Most of her friends hopped in their trucks and headed for higher ground.
She ran out to watch for a tsunami or high waves.
It was dark and snowing heavily. The ocean was eerily silent. “Everything was dead calm. not a breath of air. I couldn’t even hear the ocean.”
In Queen Charlotte City, Mayor Kulesha scooped up her dog and, in the dark, grabbed her emergency kit from the hall closet. “It lasted and lasted, it felt like forever.”
She began to pound out the calls on her cellphone as she scrambled into her car to get to the RCMP building.
That’s also when she started making her list of what needs to work better the next time this happens. With the power out, communications faltered. “I could not call people I knew that had cordless phones or no cellphone. If you’re in a remote area like mine, that’s a huge issue.”
At 8:08, the two phones that seismologist John Cassidy wears harnessed to his body at all times buzzed and vibrated.
He dropped his carpet and tools. The adrenalin was already kicking in.
“Anything larger than a (magnitude) 4 triggers all these bells and whistles. We have seismographs all across Canada, they measure and send signals in real time, so we can see just how the ground is shaking. The signals go from the instrument up to a satellite and bounce back to our office.”
When he got the first report, that the earthquake was a 7.1, and the follow up 7.7 as additional data came in, he kicked into high gear.
“When you are up to a magnitude 7, it’s potentially devastating.”
Within 20 minutes, he and his associates from Sidney’s Pacific GeoScience Centre would have information posted and were continually updating it.
Cassidy would work through the night, fielding calls and delivering information for emergency management organizations, tsunami warning systems, monitoring aftershocks and assessing exactly what happened along the fault line. Manning three phones, he put his 20-year-old son to work helping field the calls.
In Queen Charlotte City, Mayor Kulesha met with fire chief Duke at RCMP headquarters. A state of emergency was declared. Firefighters, ambulance crews and other volunteers had thrown emergency vests over their Halloween costumes.
“One lady showed up in a cocktail dress and rubber boots,” said Kulesha.
Already firefighters were door-knocking on the shoreline homes, and using loudspeakers to clear the coastal town. A steady line of tail lights snaked up the logging roads to higher ground.
“I was really proud of everyone,” said Kulesha, adding the event was an opportunity to learn. “Communications for us is the largest issue. I think we need to have more discussion with the federal government about infrastructure.”
After the Southeast Asia Tsunami in 2004, the need for a Tsunami siren had become apparent; one is on order, but hasn’t been delivered yet.
In Terrace, reporter Killen stayed home for an hour or so. “We were worried the Skeena (River) was going to flood,” she said. When it became clear the threat was over, she went to a Halloween party — and it was a good one. “We all had something to talk about.”
In Sandspit, Goalder inspected the marina and the fuel tanks. “It was rocking pretty good, but there was no real damage,” she said.
Queen Charlotte fire chief Duke said some community members were put out that, once the tsunami warning was called off, the dance didn’t go ahead as scheduled. It’s the biggest fundraiser of the year for the small town’s emergency services.
“We’ll have another one later on. We’ll call it the Aftershock,” said Duke.
By 5 p.m. on Sunday, seismologist Cassidy was still up, sleepless in Sidney and fielding phone calls as aftershocks continued. The torn-up carpet would have to wait.
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