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27 February 2010

Death from Above

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Rogers Pass British Columbia - The 58 men didn't see the monstrous white wall of death that killed them.
It was 11:30 on the night of 4 Mar 1910, when the suitably named Mt. Avalanche unleashed Canada's costliest snow slide, a 200 km/h torrent mingled with timber and massive boulders descended on a work crew of more than 60 men toiling in Rogers Pass.
Bill LeChance, a foreman on a Canadian Pacific locomotive, was blown out of the machine by a hammer-fist of air catapulted by the on-rushing snow, says Dr. John Woods, retired chief naturalist with Mt. Revelstoke and Glacier National Parks.
"He was sent hurlting into the air, went to hospital in Revelstoke, and lived many more years," says Woods.
Few were as lucky as LeChance, part of a team sent to the pass hours before to clear the railroad track of debris left by an avalanche that had swept down from Mt. Cheops earlier that day.
Another survivor, roadmaster John Anderson, had briefly left the work party, making his way to a watchman's shack to inform the Revelstoke dispatcher of the cleanup's progress.
"He came back to find the site engulfed," says Woods.
Anderson was later quoted in a local newspaper saying he didn't think the spot was more dangerous than any other along the line and at the fatal moment he "heard the wind, but didn't think of a slide... the men understood the road has to be kept clear at all times."
Anderson's brother, Charlie, was among the snow-entombed dead.
Crushed and bulldozed hundreds of metres down the valley by the snow was LeChance's locomotive, tender, and a rotary snow plow.
Stated the weekly Revelstoke Mail-Herald the following day:  "The awful calamity that has thrown Revelstoke into a state of consternation is the worst in the history of this division, and is appalling in its details of utter annihilation..."
Railway worker Duncan McRae told the newspaper of barely escaping the powdery death, whose hands briefly caressed him.
"I felt it was all over with us, but I kept my feet going as the wind rushed me along, the sensation was as if I was walking on water," said McRae, who was ultimately dumped unhurt on a snow shed.
Victoria author Julie Lawson said her Swedish emigre grandfather, John Anderson, "didn't like to talk about" his near miss, noting precisely two years after the avalanche, his other brother, Victor, was killed in yet another railway accident.
"My grandfather always considered himself the lucky one," said Lawson.
"There's always the idea of fate... our family has always thought it's pretty amazing, of course if he hadn't have survived, my mother wouldn't have been born."
The experience left Anderson deeply shaken "and he put in for a transfer, to anywhere but in the mountains," added Lawson.
The slide was the product of a regional weather system that dumped two metres of snow on Rogers Pass, and led to the worst snow avalanche in U.S. history three days before, at Stevens Pass, Washinton, where 98 people perished.
A hastily assembled rescue team of about 600 poured onto the scene, which covered 400 metres of track on the current site of the wooden Rogers Pass commemorative arch.
Sixty-four years later, Donald G. Scott Calder recalled how he and other high school-age friends joined older rescue volunteers from Revelstoke at the gruesome scene in what would be a coming-of-age experience.
"Here we met a devastating sight for the snow mixed with pieces of timber, shredded like matchwood was packed almost as hard as solid ice," wrote Calder.
"The unfortunate locomotive engineers and firemen were brought out partially scalded and partially frozen."
The crews, toiling by shovel and pick axe in the midst of a blizzard, disinterred bodies deathly frozen in upright positions in 10 metres of snow.
A train carrying 150 passengers on Pacific Express No. 97 out of Calgary narrowly missed being smothered when it halted 1.6 km to the east to await the clearing of the initial slide.
In a photo snapped a few days after the tragedy, two women, probably from the Calgary train, can be seen perched above shovel-wielding men and pulverised railway equipment.
The catastrophe supplied further impetus in building avalanche safeguards in the area, including the 8-km Connaught Tunnel beneath Mt. Macdonald that opened in 1916, then the longest of its kind.
Artillery is used to bring down possible slides, while a series of tunnels shields vehicular traffic on the Trans-Canada Highway through the pass.
But the hazard, as evidenced by frequent road closures, remains, said Woods.
"We want people to continue to pay attention to the mountains and safety because the same ingredients are there," he said.
= = = = =
Canada's worst snowslide buried the dreams of a better life for a small army of immigrants, with none bearing a heavier wrath than those hailing from the Land of the Rising Sun.
Of the 58 dead, 32 were Japanese nationals, men hired as contract workers to maintain a railway menaced by nature since its arrival 25 years before.
After about 700 Chinese navvies had died pushing the railway through the mountains the previous century, it was the turn of their Asian neighbours to sacrifice for Canada's steel lifeline.
The CPR legacy of the navvies was so lasting, some rescuers at Rogers Pass mistook the dead Japanese labourers for Chinese.
The Japanese, most in their 20s, had emigrated to Canada in 1907, the same year Ottawa moved to limit the number of emigres from the Asian nation to 450 a year.
It was motivated largely by the racism of the time, a mindset that fuelled a riot by European-Canadians who trashed Asian businesses in Vancouver on 7 Sep 1907.
The Rogers Pass victims, mostly from south and west of Tokyo, headed to Canada after their welcome in Hawaii, which had just become a U.S. territory, wore thin, said Revelstoke historian Tomoaki Fujimura, who's researched the disaster.
"Their treatment in Canada certainly wasn't what we have now," said Fujimura, who noted almost none of the men was allowed to be accompanied by wives or family in Canada at the time of their deaths. Only one member of the Japanese crew toiling at the scene survived.
Another party of Japanese workers had left for a supper break and thus was spared.
Thirty of the dead are buried in Vancouver's Mountain View Cemetery.
"At that time, they didn't have money and only seven plots have stones," said Fujimura.
Families of the victims back in Japan received compensation ranging from $130 to $355. Fujimura has tracked down some of the families overseas, saying they greatly appreciate his efforts.
"They're happy to know their ancestors' history, they want to have their Japanese ancestry honoured," he said.
The Japanese descendents of at least three victims are attending a 4 Mar 2010 and a 15 Aug 2010 service honouring all the dead in Revelstoke and Rogers Pass respectively.
Among them are relatives of cousins Hikohachi Sakoda and Monnosuke Yamaji, both of Kigoshima prefecture.
Part of the commemorations next month will involve the presentation of hundreds of origami cranes, crafted both in Japan and Canada, as a sign of peaceful closure.
Bill Kaufmann.

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