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'It looked like the forest moved onto the road': Mudslide witness details experience stuck on Highway 99

One person is dead and others remain missing after the Monday morning tragedy north of Pemberton

Jukka Tuisku was travelling from Lillooet to Vancouver with two other people on Monday morning, Nov. 15. They came around a bend along the Duffey Lake Road section of Highway 99, only to find a line of vehicles stopped.

A mudslide was blocking the road.

“It didn't look like it was going to be resolved, because it was quite a lot of debris,” he explained. Tuisku estimates his group had been waiting in their car for about 40 minutes to an hour when he heard “a tremendous sound” behind him.

“I could just see what looked like the forest move onto the road,” he said. “I didn't see the vehicles disappear, but other people did. And at that point, I got out of the car and started running.”

Tuisku said a second slide hit directly into the lineup starting two cars behind him, dragging several vehicles over the slope. He said a witness leapt into gear, gathering ropes and volunteers and coordinating a rescue effort to pull those swept away by the slide to safety. Tuisku said he saw people climbing up from the slope “completely covered in mud.”

One person is dead and at least two others are missing after being caught in the slide, RCMP confirmed Tuesday. Police said  search and rescue crews located and extricated the body of a Lower Mainland woman from the debris late Monday. The BC Coroners Service has launched an investigation into her death. Officials urge anyone who has not heard from loved ones believed to be in the area to contact Pemberton or Lillooet RCMP detachments, as police believe more occupied vehicles may have been impacted.

On Wednesday afternoon, officials confirmed they had received one additional missing person report associated with the slide. 

As Tuisku witnessed, “The community that was there on the scene went right into action, you know, it was a very, very noble effort."

A snowplow driver was among those stuck, recalled Tuisku, and was eventually convinced to try clearing the debris. “It was mostly rock and shale and timber, so it's not something he would probably normally do. But he did it, and cleared a path and all the vehicles in that stretch were able to cross, with the people who were probably near hypothermia at that point in various vehicles,” he said.

“We just moved on.”

Tuisku estimated there were about 20 vehicles stranded between the two slides.

“It's just a crapshoot, sort of, that others were behind us and not in front of us,” he said. “You go through the errands you did that day and what got you to that point … Of course it’s terrifying, but it's just very surreal, and it doesn't seem like it's really happening. And then it's over in seconds.”

He said his group left the area before he noticed any emergency crews arrive. The area is out of cell range, he pointed out.

Highway 99 remained closed Tuesday for an 81.9-km stretch between Lil'wat Place, located nine km north of Pemberton, and Seton Lake Road. An update from Drive BC is not expected to come until at least 6 p.m. Wednesday. 

Paula Cousins, regional executive director for the Ministry of Transportation's Southern Interior Regional Office said during a Tuesday afternoon media briefing that motorists could expect the road to remain closed for "at least a few days." One slide site along Highway 99 has since been cleared, while crews continue working with police and volunteers to assess the debris field from the second slide, officials said Wednesday. 

The tragedy comes following an “atmospheric river” event that swept through southern B.C. over the weekend, causing severe flooding, landslides and extensive damage throughout much of the province.

The entire city of Merritt was placed under evacuation order, while hundreds of people were rescued by helicopter Monday after becoming trapped overnight between on Highway 7 between Agassiz and Hope. Residents were also urged to evacuate parts of Abbotsford Tuesday after an anticipated pump failure near Sumas Prairie prompted warnings of “catastrophic flooding” posing a “significant risk to life.”