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Anatomy of a rescue: How heroic strangers saved injured Surrey family from a mudslide

The massive landslide slammed the Weiss family’s van off Highway 7, shattered the windows, caked the family in mud, tore shoes off their feet, and rolled their Dodge Caravan twice before it finally came to rest in utter blackness.

Lori-Ann Weiss yelled out for her husband Joshua and her three children. In the back row, 14-year-old Elijah was covered in blood and unresponsive. She thought he might be dead.

They desperately needed help, but what the family didn’t know was that they were sandwiched between a series of mudslides on the highway between Hope and Agassiz. No ambulance could reach them.

Almost two weeks after a devastating rain storm triggered landslides that left at least five people dead, flooded farms, and destroyed roads and other major infrastructure, the Weiss family is recuperating at home in Surrey.

Elijah, who had a skull fracture, a jaw broken in two places, and large gashes to his forehead and scalp, is expected to make a full recovery. The others are ­healing from wounds less serious, but no less traumatic.

Parents Lori-Ann and Joshua believe they owe their family’s survival to the selfless actions of heroic strangers who came to their rescue after the Nov. 14 mudslide.

“People we don’t even know, complete strangers. And their ability to show us love and their ability to selflessly give to us, having never, ever known us before …” Lori-Ann said.

“… in the drop of a hat,” Joshua added, finishing her sentence. “All of these people, and all of these efforts, helped to keep our family intact.”

Following the “most harrowing and scary” experience of their lives, Joshua kept a list of the people to thank: The ­off-duty nurses and other good ­Samaritans who helped at the scene, Hope Search and Rescue team members who carried their stretchers over the landslide debris, the strangers in Hope who gave them shelter, and the Surrey medical team who travelled through flooded roads and along rail lines to treat Elijah and eventually arrange an air ambulance to B.C. Children’s Hospital.

Postmedia spoke with many of those rescuers, who, in turn, are grateful that the family is on the mend and are inspired by how people worked together during a disaster.

“I’m so thankful for everyone that was involved in being able to get them to a hospital. … It took a huge team of ­people, and it was just so nice to hear that side of humanity, where everyone is so helpful and creative in an emergency,” said ­Kathleen Sullivan, a B.C. Children’s Hospital nurse practitioner who provided first aid to the Weiss family.

“I’ve cared for hundreds of kids in scary and uncertain circumstances. Stuck between two mudslides with a MVA [motor vehicle accident] trauma teenager certainly takes the cake.”

On the morning of the mudslide, the Weisses began driving home from ­Kamloops. During their trip, rain started to pound down, and a series of accidents and road closures eventually led them to detour onto Highway 7, east of Hope.

The highway was wet and dark, but traffic was moving well. Around 7:30 p.m., Lori-Ann, who along with her husband is a Surrey high school teacher, was quizzing the two boys for a chemistry test when Joshua saw something falling fast on the steep slope to their right.

“I said to Lori-Ann, ‘What is that?’ ”

She screamed, “Watch out!” as the mudslide slammed into the side of the van with a deafening roar.

“It sounded like thunder,” recalled Elijah.

It would be the last thing he remembered before waking up in hospital a day later.

Noah, who was in the third row of the van beside his twin Elijah, and Nadia who was sitting alone in the middle row, counted as the vehicle flipped two times down the slope.

“We went off the road and it was so fast. And we rolled twice upside down and we just stopped against a tree,” Noah said.

Lori-Ann called out everyone’s names. Noah yelled that Elijah wasn’t saying anything. He was making groaning noises and his body had gone stiff as a board. There was a giant rock in the back, which the family believes blew through the window and hit Elijah in the head.

Joshua, like the rest of his family, had mud in his eyes, in his ears, in his mouth. Terrified, he knew he needed to get help. He wrenched open his mangled door, and stumbled towards headlights he could see far above on Highway 7.

When he got to the top, he jumped over a downed power line and ran to the first car. Inside was emergency room nurse Laura Ronson, who gave him a headlamp and promised to come help.

Joshua ran back down the ­embankment to the van, where Lori-Ann was using ­bottles of water to try to wash the mud out of everyone’s eyes. The headlamp ­illuminated the blood covering Elijah’s face, Noah’s blood-soaked arm, and ­Lori-Ann’s bloodied face and hand.

As Nadia, 16, was the most able-bodied, Joshua helped her out first. She was in bare feet but found a pair of slippers, which she put on after shaking them free of glass. The flimsy footwear gave her very little grip, though, while climbing over wet boulders, downed trees and large piles of mud.

“I had to crawl up on my hands, on my knees to get up this slope,” she said.

Once they reached the road, Heather and Steve Roseboom, dairy farmers from Chilliwack, offered Nadia refuge inside their warm pickup truck. The frightened teenager started to pray out loud, and Heather prayed with her.

“I have no clue what’s happening in the car right now. I don’t know if Elijah’s OK. In the moment that I was leaving the car, I actually thought that he was gone,” Nadia recalled.

Back in the van, Lori-Ann got Noah to help her pull Elijah to the front seat, torn between worrying that he shouldn’t be moved because of a possible spinal injury and the certainty that they must get out of the van to safety.

When Joshua returned, he was ­accompanied by Ronson, who had ­borrowed boots and a second headlamp. Together, they all lowered Elijah, who couldn’t walk on his own, out of the van onto the uneven ground below.

How they got the 6-foot-2 injured teen out of the van

It was a struggle for the determined dad and nurse to carry the 6-foot-2 teenager over the many mounds of debris lying between the van and a life-saving rope.

A 15-metre rope dangling down the embankment had been tied to a ­utility pole at the top by another stranded motorist, an infantry soldier with the Rocky Mountain Rangers, a Canadian Armed Forces reserve unit.

Ronson had flagged down the ­soldier to help, and he had gone down the ­embankment with her and Joshua, but realized that an injured person would need help to get up the slope. So he ran back to get his rope and, after tying it to the pole, descended to assist Elijah over a high pile of logs.

“I held him upright while the dad was getting across [the logs], and then I pushed Elijah up so he was almost ­vertical, so he wouldn’t fall over again. He was just leaning on me the whole time,” said the soldier, Mackenzie, who asked that his last name not be used.

Joshua was not sure they could get the injured teen up the rope. But they pushed and pulled, and Elijah was able to grip the cable. “I’m behind him and I’ve got his bum and I’m shoving him up while he’s hand over hand.”

Elijah was taken to the Rosebooms’ truck, where Nadia was relieved to see her brother alive. She tried to keep him calm as he mumbled questions: What ­happened? Where was he? Why did his eyes hurt? Were Noah and his parents OK?

“He has such a kind heart,” she said, tearing up. “It was really hard to see my little brother in this situation.”

Lori-Ann, who had just one shoe, and Noah, who was wearing only socks, also got to the rope with help from Mackenzie.

‘He was going into a bit of shock. … And so I was able to hold him.’

They were taken to an industrial painter’s van, where Lori-Ann huddled with Noah under a blanket, trying to comfort the teenager. “He was going into a bit of shock. He was shaking. And so I was able to hold him and have body contact with him,” she said.

She also flushed her right eye with water, removing pieces of rock roughly the size of peas.

Joshua went back and forth between the trucks harbouring his family, but now that the adrenalin from rescuing them had subsided, he started to panic about whether Elijah would recover.

“I knew at that moment that he was critically, critically injured, and that I couldn’t help him.”

Farther back in the line of trapped vehicles, Sullivan, the nurse practitioner, was going car to car to ask if anyone needed help. When she learned about Elijah, she assessed him for ­neurological damage but did not see any signs of a brain injury.

“I talked to him and stayed with him. I cleaned up a few of his ­lacerations, I assessed where he was ­bleeding,” said Sullivan. She also called an ­ophthalmologist to ask about his eyes, still swollen shut with mud and blood.

At this point, Sullivan got word that a Hope Search and Rescue team had arrived, hauling stretchers over the ­mudslide.

Elijah was bundled in blankets and put on a stretcher. SAR members carried him through about 10 centimetres of water gushing across the road, and then over the 75-metre-wide landslide field, said team leader Keith Carlin.

“We got him across the water using a couple of rocks to rest the stretcher on. And then we got him through all of the debris field into the ambulance,” he said.

There was only one available ­ambulance that was able to reach their location, and Carlin had arranged for it to meet them on the Hope side of the ­mudslide.

His team then returned to carry Noah, whose arm had been splinted by Sullivan, over the mudslide in a stretcher. They also helped Joshua walk across, and then the ambulance took father and sons to the Fraser Canyon Hospital in Hope.

“I kept telling the family, ‘You know, no matter what happens, you’re all alive, and you’re all together,’ ” Carlin recalled.

Nadia borrowed new slippers and ­Lori-Ann wore someone else’s large boot on her left foot, with her own shoe on the right, as the SAR members accompanied them across the mudslide next.

“I was shaking, disoriented, so they were helping me cross over. And I had to clench my toes to keep the slippers on,” Nadia said. “The water was rushing really fast. And if I didn’t have someone holding me, you could be swept away.”

The SAR truck took mother and daughter to the small hospital in Hope, arriving about 11:30 p.m. Sunday. It was overwhelmed and understaffed due to the floods, and Elijah was in one of the 10 ER beds.

There the family was embraced by kindness again. A hospital social worker brought them clothes and shoes. A ­stranger took them in and gave them ­dinner and beds on Monday night.

While they appreciated the care they received at the hospital, the Weiss ­family wanted Elijah to get to a larger centre for more advanced medical treatment. But all roads between Hope and Metro ­Vancouver were blocked by landslides, and the air ambulance was delayed by high winds and horrendous rain.

The family, though, had no idea that a medical team from Surrey ­Memorial ­Hospital, led by Dr. Greg Haljan, was already working to bring their ICU department to the injured teen.

Monday evening, police escorted ­Haljan, along with a nurse, a ­respiratory therapist, and another doctor over flooded roads and through a gravel pit to reach the rail tracks in Chilliwack, where a CN vehicle drove them to Hope. They arrived at the hospital just before midnight, and provided Elijah with more specialized care.

Haljan was also in contact with the air ambulance, which arrived early ­Tuesday and flew Elijah and Joshua to B.C. ­Children’s Hospital.

“It’s great to be one piece of that huge chain of survival, across all the different organizations,” Haljan said. “I’m really, really grateful that everybody came together to support [Elijah].”

Lori-Ann, Nadia and Noah flew to Vancouver later Tuesday when a friend arranged a helicopter flight. In the urban hospitals, a large chunk of glass was removed from Noah’s battered left arm, and Lori-Ann received several ­antibiotics to stave off infections in her badly ­lacerated right hand.

Elijah, who was admitted for three nights, had surgery and was put through a battery of tests before being released.

Today the grateful family is together and healing because motorists trapped on Highway 7, and later others in Hope and Surrey, rushed to save strangers in need. “There was a wider community …” ­Lori-Ann began.

“ … that had developed in this short, very, very short, intense time frame,” Joshua added, smiling at his son Elijah.

“The amount of people that gathered selflessly for this young man here was nothing short of excellent.”