Thousands expected at memorial for avalanche victims
SPARWOOD, B.C. - As many as 7,000 people are expected to jam a hockey arena and curling rink in this tiny mining town Sunday to say goodbye to eight local men who were swept to their deaths while snowmobiling last weekend.
Sparwood Mayor David Wilks said officials in the town of 4,000 have been pushing themselves to ensure everything is in place when they bid farewell to the avalanche victims at the 11 a.m. service.
"This is a huge logistical event we've never gone through before," said Wilks.
Heavy snow and howling winds have been pounding the East Kootenays this week and Wilks said weather conditions could affect the turnout.
The arena seats only 2,000, so organizers have been scrambling to cover the ice sheets and erect a large screen TV in the nearby curling rink for an overflow crowd to watch the service.
Wilks himself spent New Year's Day collecting pictures of the victims to enlarge and display for the service.
Jim Abbott, the MP for the area, will represent the federal government at the memorial.
It will cap a week of public mourning for the eight, who were among a group of 11 snowmobilers caught up in fearsome snowslides last Sunday in a mountainous backcountry area named Harvey Valley.
The victims were: Daniel Bjarnson, 28; Kurt Kabel, 28; Warren Rothel, 33; Kane Rusnak, 30; Thomas Talarico, 32; Blayne Wilson, 26; Michael Stier, 20; and Michael's 45-year-old father, Leonard Stier.
They were hit by repeated slides up to five metres in height that came thundering down the slope at 150 kilometres an hour.
But there's also an element of survival to this tragedy.
Jeff Adams, James Drake and Jeremy Rusnak made it out to safety after digging themselves and each other out of the hard-packed snow, sometimes with just bare hands.
But the trio was also forced to make what Adams called a "gut-wrenching decision" to leave their entombed friends behind in the unstable area where there had already been several avalanches.
Private services began Friday for the victims, so hundreds of locals have already attended vigils and candle-lighting ceremonies.
On Tuesday, two days after the avalanche, 250 people went to St. Michael's Catholic Church to remember the men. Another 150 met at the Sparwood Christian Centre to shed tears.
Harry Clarke, the pastor at St. Michael's, said the tragedy has residents searching to understand why and how the lives of so many could be plunged into such sorrow in just a few seconds.
"Many are finding that their certainties have been overturned," said Clarke. "This world of Sparwood has suddenly been plunged into darkness. Death has emerged from these mountains and we're having to deal with it."
"We hope," he added. "That (people) will find the strength to go on. The worst thing that can happen is people start blaming themselves and self-destruct."
There has already been a global outpouring of emotion and words of support for the survivors and the victims' families. More more than 3,000 postings quickly appeared on Facebook, some from as far as Australia.
"For the three survivors, hang in there," wrote Kathy Mooy-Klima. "Your friends know that you did all you could to help them."
"I hope that you will be able to grieve and move on. Your friends would want you to be happy."
Adams told a news conference Wednesday the friends knew the avalanche danger was high, but came prepared with shovels, probes and locator-transmitters. However, the deaths of these eight men has ignited a national online debate about risk-taking in the backcountry with high-powered snow machines.
Bloggers posting to cbc.ca were fractured among those who believed it was fate, those who believed the men should have heeded the avalanche warning and those who said that even if you want to pass judgment, now is not the time.
"This is an incredibly sad story for the reason that this accident never had to happen," wrote one blogger.
"Have some sensitivity, folks," shot back another. "Maybe we shouldn't ride in cars, planes or even walk outside. It's too dangerous. Life might happen!"
Clarke said the benefits of Sunday's memorial may come in the long term. He recalled an incident in his former home of Dublin, Ireland, two years ago when a feuding young sister and brother had attended a church memorial for victims of a dance hall fire.
"After they came home from the service in the church, they had a talk that the way they were living was ridiculous and that life was short and it was mysterious and it was time they started loving one another," he said.
"The mother said within six months they were best friends. She said whatever passed through their hearts in that church changed their home."
"What we have to do in the aftermath (of this tragedy) is create wonderful families, give a whole new emphasis to caring for youth."
"I think there will be a great story to be told here a year from now."