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Ten years after the Rutherford Creek Bridge washes away in an epic storm, Pique looks back and remembers

In October 2003 the unthinkable happened when the Rutherford Creek Bridge was torn from its footings by a raging river swollen by torrential rain, trees ripped from the banks, boulders big enough to kill, and thousands of pounds of sand and gravel sediment. The bridge, built in 1971, was set to withstand a flow of 127 cubic metres per second. During the storm the peak flow was estimated to be 315 metres per second.

In the small hours of Oct.18, 2003 three cars plummeted off the end of the road into Rutherford Creek before the washout was noticed by a local taxi driver who set up a roadblock. Of the six people in the vehicles only one managed to make it out alive, Casey Burnette. Brother Jamie and friend Ed Elliot have never been found. Friends Darryl Stevenson, 31, and Michael Benoit, 29, were also killed. Their Volvo was found Oct.19.

And in a strange twist, Bob Michael Leibel was found 14 months later — he was never officially reported missing — it's a story that's never been told.

Ten years on Pique looks back at a storm that remains one for the history books.

A small-town newspaper obit from 2005 holds the long-elusive clues to a secret in Kaitlyn McDonough's life.

She already knows her dad is dead; it's the rest of the story she's desperately searching for.

"I think he saw me when I was six days old and that was the last time he saw me," she said of a moment in time 21 years ago, memorialized in a faded snapshot, the only photo she has of her dad, tangible proof that they were together once.

The only other thing she knows for sure is that Bob Michael Leibel died in a freak accident a decade ago this month in the Sea to Sky corridor when the car he had stolen plunged into Rutherford Creek after the bridge spanning the crossing was swept away during a massive storm.

It's that accident that could lead her to her past.

"I've tried in recent years to figure out a little bit more information but haven't really got very far. Not many people know about him or are willing to talk to me about anything so..."

But someone knows about Leibel and cared enough to mark his passing in the Kootenay News Advertiser in Cranbrook, after his body was found in Rutherford Creek in December 2004 — a little more than a year after he went missing.

Kaitlyn's breathing deepens down the phone, her heart begins to pound, as she waits for the information that could unlock the mystery of who she is, where she comes from.

"Robert Michael Leibel, September 9, 1968 — October 18, 2003, missing since 2003, recently discovered in Rutherford Creek where he had been for 14 months following a vehicle accident after a bridge wash out. Bob is survived by..."

And so, on the 10-year anniversary of Leibel's death a stranger tells his daughter Kaitlyn the names of her grandparents — Dan and Marilyn. She learns about her father's siblings — Valery and Del and Trevor and Nicole and Russel — aunts and uncles she never knew existed. She hears Leibel had five children — that's five half-brothers or half-sisters for Kaitlyn.

"Oh, that's crazy. I didn't know about any of those people actually."

The silence deepens.

Does she want to find out more?

"That would be amazing. I've been looking for a very long time."


The Storm

Autumn 2003 was shaping up to be a below-average typhoon season in the western North Pacific. But what it lacked in storm numbers was more than made up for by the strength of the systems that did form. A moderately strong, ongoing El Niño may have contributed to the disproportionate number of major typhoons, but then, no one really knew. What forecasters could see, however, in the second week of October, were the moist remnants of Typhoons Koppu, Choi-wan and Maemi — one of the strongest ever to hit the Korean Peninsula — lurking in bits and pieces strung together by fronts across the Pacific like Christmas lights slowly blinking out. The chain had a strong southwesterly fetch and, drawing on another huge plume of moisture extending northeast from tropical Asia, exhibited classic conditions for what meteorologists, with their newscaster fondness for names, called a "Pineapple Express." All it needed was a target.

After several storms that left some serious early-season snow in alpine areas, B.C.'s Lower Mainland was enjoying a spell of fine, albeit cool, fall weather courtesy of a large stationary high-pressure area. As the high eventually broke down, cloud began pushing onto the coast overnight on Oct.14. By the next morning in Whistler, dawn's mostly clear sky had clouded over by 8 a.m. Radar images and records from the time indicate light rain falling ahead of the system in most of the Lower Mainland by noon and in Whistler by 2 p.m. By midnight, surface weather maps (the kind with all the squiggly lines and frontal systems running around) showed that a number of lows, previously blocked by the high, had piled into each near the coast, amalgamating into a deepening super-low which, on a satellite photo, resembled a comet plowing into the Lower Mainland with a tail that stretched all the way to Indonesia. Pockets of cold air trapped in the valleys mixed variously into the advancing front. By the morning of Oct.16, precipitation in Whistler changed to mixed rain and snow, then snow for a couple hours — "potato-chip-sized snowflakes" according to one witness, a telltale sign of layers of supercharged moisture mixing with temperatures around zero — then back to a mix. The weather bomb behind it all hit around 1 p.m. when steady, drenching rain began at a temperature of only 1C. That meant snow was falling on the surrounding peaks and lots of it; the rainfall total for that day in Whistler was 76.3 mm and, at one of three stations in Squamish, an astounding 117.1 mm.

Though many smaller Sea to Sky weather stations were no longer operational, rainfall amounts for the mountains southwest of Pemberton were estimated to be similar to those around Whistler and Squamish. By now, any lingering cold had been vanquished; air temperatures were 10C with high freezing levels, and the biblical deluge had instantly melted the previous day's prodigious snows, accumulations from past weeks, and started in on the glaciers and icecaps. Consider that 7.5mm/hr is classed as heavy rain, 10 mm/hr the rate at which windshield wipers can no longer keep up, and that this rain was variously falling at rates from 20-40 mm/hr and you get the picture.

"That 2003 event was so intense, and took everyone by such surprise that it spawned a new name," recalls Environment Canada meteorologist David Jones, who has been on the job in coastal B.C. since 1988 and was media point man in 2003.

"At a presentation after the fact, someone put up a slide with a satellite photo of the storm — which looked like a fist — labelled with the term 'Tropical Punch.'"

Though an appropriate extension of the metaphor, the term would be offered for public consumption only the next time such a severe Pineapple Express materialized, in January 2005. This time, forecasters knew exactly what they were looking at. Despite all they'd learned, however, how good their computer models were at identifying patterns up to a week away and updating rainfall forecasts on a daily basis, such storms still defied human imagination, seeding worry over delivering unwarranted hyperbole.

 "I remember a debate we had prior to (the January 2005) event about how much predicted rainfall to put in the forecast," says Jones. "What the models were telling us sounded ridiculous so we dropped it — but it turned out to not be ridiculous at all."

Though rain-on-snow events are common in October, this one delivered its payload to valleys almost all at once. Joining flows from either side of the pass that Whistler sits on, runoff more than tripled into some of the major tributaries feeding the large river systems of the Squamish and Pemberton valleys. One of these was Rutherford Creek.

As the blinding rain fell Leibel decided it was time to leave Pemberton, heading south, straight for the Rutherford.

Mr. Nobody

When it was first reported by an employee to Chris Barratt, co-owner of the Pioneer Junction Shell gas station in Pemberton, on the morning of Oct.18, an overnight minor robbery involving a handful of lottery tickets, some smokes, and a small amount of cash was, to put it mildly, the least of his or the town's concerns. In an entirely understandable act of triage, the RCMP could not send an investigating officer until much later.

Early that morning, the rapidly rising Lillooet River had broken through an extensive levee system, inundating thousands of acres of residential and agricultural land. Much of the Pemberton Valley was under a metre or more of water. The 18-hole Big Sky golf course was identifiable only by its clubhouse, which now seemed to float, illusion-like, on a rise above a vast, brown lake. Evacuations were underway for hundreds of residents of the nearby Mount Currie Reservation, land that sadly, but predictably, was the most vulnerable to flooding.

A hundred kilometres to the south, similar scenes were unfolding around Squamish, as some 250 mm of rain in 48 hours and meltwater from a more than metre-deep alpine snowpack surged down from surrounding mountains, heading back to the sea that spawned it with the town in its way. Upstream, the Resort Municipality of Whistler had been entirely cut off by road: a kilometre-long section of Highway 99 had crumbled into a bend of the raging Cheakamus River; and to the north of the resort, both road and rail bridges over Rutherford Creek, 10 minutes shy of Pemberton, had been entirely washed away at approximately 3:45 a.m. by a maelstrom that rolled boulders the size of houses like they were marbles.

In the dark, unlit wilderness, driving through lashing rain that no wiper could clear fast enough, two vehicles had tumbled blindly into the raging waters; it appeared at least four people were dead, with a third passenger in one of the vehicles surviving by clinging to debris on an island.

When the RCMP finally did get around to investigating the robbery, it turned out to be a less than heinous crime.

In a reverse of the usual scenario in B.C., 35 year-old Robert Michael Leibel had come south from Prince George looking for work. How or why he chose Pemberton is unknown, but he'd landed a job at Pioneer Shell. From what he'd told Barratt, the idea was to bring his girlfriend and kids down when he got settled. Although Leibel was in constant contact with her, at some point she had decided not to come down. Leibel wasn't happy and grew increasingly distraught, deciding he had to get back to Prince George. The problem was he had no money or means to get back; he'd worked at the station three weeks and had yet to receive a paychecque. After a distressing talk with his girlfriend on Oct.17, he'd figured out how to get both what he was owed and what he needed to leave. His state of mind was definitely questionable. A co-coworker was surprised when he appeared for work that afternoon sporting a radical Mohawk haircut. Later, working the graveyard shift alone, Leibel, who already had a minor criminal record, had robbed the station — though a sympathetic Barratt could barely construe it as such when interviewed.

"He could have done a number here and cleaned us out but he didn't; he took two floats of cash that totalled under $1,000, and some cigarettes and lottery tickets. But he still locked the doors and put signs up after his shift," recalls Barratt. "He was a nice guy and didn't come here to rob us. It was clear that he was despondent; his emotions got the better of him and he just wanted to head back to Prince George."

Which Barratt and others assumed he had — north over the Duffey Lake Road just before the valley had flooded. Leibel was never heard from again.

Meanwhile, though dealing with the significant aftermath of floods and washouts, the RCMP would also be handed other minor irritants to deal with: for instance, another Pemberton resident selling an Isuzu Trooper, parked on a gravel lot with a sign in the window, had returned from vacation to find it gone. According to RCMP records, the Isuzu was reported stolen on Oct. 29, 11 days after Leibel left town, the major reason it was never connected to him. In fact, it wouldn't be until 14 months later that the stolen Isuzu, the gas station robbery, and the whereabouts of Robert Leibel would finally converge.

On Dec. 13 2004, during dredging work just downstream of the new Rutherford Creek bridge, the probing claw of an excavator uncovered the roof of a truck buried since the bridge washout. The wreck — crushed so flat that it had to be pried open — revealed itself to be the missing Isuzu Trooper — inside there was a lone corpse. By comparing DNA taken from a fingerprint, the B.C. Coroners Service and Vancouver Forensic Identification Section confirmed the body's identity as that of Leibel. There had always been conjecture in the community over how many vehicles were lost that night and this find reinvigorated debate.

Frozen in a 14-month time warp, Leibel was still wearing his Shell uniform, the items he stole surrounding him in the vehicle. Leibel's undoing seemed deliverance into the hands of some karmic meteorological monster, and also appeared to be case closed on the disappearance, robbery, and stolen car for the RCMP.

For every question answered, however, another was dangled. Many of these were discussed in interviews about the RCMP report — which was destroyed in 2012 as per an eight-year attrition policy for "solved" crimes/disappearances — with Chris Barratt and Whistler detachment cst. Devon Jones conducted in 2005.

Leibel's last transaction on the register was at 3:02 a.m. He was staying at a nearby trailer court and Barratt and other co-workers heard that he'd pulled in there in a vehicle around 3:30 a.m., with someone waiting for him in the vehicle while he grabbed his stuff. The witness hadn't taken note of the vehicle in which Leibel arrived; he could have been driven there either in another vehicle or in the stolen Isuzu, in which case an accomplice might be implicated. The RCMP agreed Leibel could have arrived at the trailer court in any vehicle, but despite its official report noting a witness seeing Leibel at 3:30 a.m., had no record of another person. So, although the "potential accomplice" version of events was widely known in the community, the issue was moot from the RCMP perspective and never pursued.

In early November, Leibel's girlfriend (never publicly identified) phoned Barratt from Prince George. She told him she hadn't heard from Leibel in a while and wondered what was going on. Barratt told her what happened at the gas station two weeks earlier, and that he thought Leibel was headed her way. The RCMP file showed that at this point, he had had no contact with the girlfriend.

Just before Christmas, the girlfriend, now distraught, again called Barratt to see if he knew where Leibel might be. Barratt told her he had "no idea" why Leibel hadn't arrived in Prince George yet — but he'd offered another thought. Although everyone had assumed Leibel headed north out of Pemberton, at this time Barratt told the woman how the bridge south had gone out the same night Leibel left town, and that maybe she should consider that possibility, and contact Pemberton RCMP. Chris also took it upon himself to pass the woman's phone number to the RCMP, though it appears it was she who eventually contacted them; the RCMP report contained a record of her calling, although when interviewed in 2005 the RCMP would not say when exactly this occurred; it was also not at liberty to release details of the conversation or any action that it may have taken as a result.

Barratt was under the impression Leibel had two children and that separation anxiety was one of the motivating factors in his desire to get back to Prince George. However, his obituary indicated he had five children in undisclosed single or multiple locations, opening a whole new can of worms in terms of where he was going and why.

According to the RCMP, no warrant is ever issued until they have exhausted all avenues of tracking down a suspect. In this case they had a suspect, but would not disclose what was done to track him down between December 2003, and December 2004, when his body was found. In the end, the police report says no warrant was issued due to lack of evidence.

Never forgotten

When the Trooper was originally located in late 2004 many believed, indeed hoped, that it was the missing red 1995 Ford Blazer that had been carrying the Burnette brothers and Elliott home to Pemberton from their jobs at Moe Joe's nightclub the night of the storm.

Their remains have never been located but the memory of the two, along with the tragedy of the night surfaces frequently as this time of the year in the Sea to Sky corridor.

An empty bottle of Jack Daniels resting under the black marble bench at the Rutherford Creek Bridge is testament to the toasts still raised in honour of Stevenson, Benoit, Elliott and Burnette.

It's a peaceful site now — a world apart from the maelstrom, which took their lives and Leibel's. A pink flower stands alone; a plastic butterfly sways on a nearby stand.

The names of the four known to be lost in 2003 and their dates, are etched on the side — all in their twenties, the prime of their lives, living the Whistler dream. Too young to die.

Leibel's name isn't there, though his fate was the same — found too late to be remembered on the bench.

You can see the new bridge from the bench. It looks... indomitable.

It's designed for the most severe flood event that could be expected within a 200-year period.

A safety alarm system was installed on the north side approach to the bridge in case the Rutherford Power plant's penstock fails — a pipeline that feeds water to the independent power producer.

"The Rutherford Creek Bridge, built using the new bridge criteria, is the safest bridge over comparable rivers in B.C.," wrote Coroner Jan MacFayden, in her report on the incident released in 2005.

The report found that some time between 3:15 a.m. and 4 a.m. on Oct. 18, 2003 the Rutherford Creek Bridge collapsed.

MacFayden found that leading up to the bridge collapse, between 150,000 and 200,000 cubic metres of earth, gravel, boulders and trees were eroded by the flood and washed downstream.

The extreme water flow eroded the bridge abutment, its pad, back fill and supporting base causing it to rotate and topple, allowing the girders and bridge deck to fall into the creek.

In its wake it left a big yawning hole in the tarmac — a hole that the drivers of three cars were unable to see in time.

According to the report the contractor for the road at the time inspected the bridge at 12:30 a.m., then at 1:30 a.m. the contractor's foreman drove over the bridge. He was informed of the bridge collapse at 4:14 a.m.

Pique reported at the time coroner's report was released that during high-water flow it is ministry standard for the maintenance contractor to inspect a bridge every two hours.

Questions were raised in the wake of the accident about the work done to the land near the bridge as part of the project to construct the Rutherford independent power project.

The major problem, however, was the weather event, said the coroner.

"The Sea to Sky Corridor has been plagued with damage due to this type of high water," wrote MacFayden. "Since 1981 there have been 16 fatalities due to bridge, creek and road washouts."

Three recommendations flowed out of her report.

The first was for the Ministry of Transportation to do a risk assessment and cost benefit evaluation related to the feasibility of installing a failure detection and warning system on bridges identified as "at risk" by the ministry.

When asked for an update a provincial spokesperson said:

"Since 2008, the ministry has undertaken a bridge scour evaluation program. This program works to identify bridges that are vulnerable for observed or predicted scour conditions (extreme erosion from heavy rain events). The process involves the screening of all bridges in B.C., field inspections and detailed evaluations of selected bridges. To date, more than 500 bridges have been assessed throughout B.C."

The coroner also recommended that the ministry review the roles and responsibilities, inspection frequencies, methodologies, training and documentation to ensure that inspections of bridges at high-risk times are conducted in an efficient and cost effective manner.

Said the provincial spokesperson: "The ministry has reviewed the required inspection frequency under the maintenance contract and found that it is reasonable and efficient. Ministry staff also inspects every bridge in the province every year. Safety is the number one priority and if during the inspection safety issues are identified, repairs are undertaken immediately to ensure the bridge continues to provide safe and reliable operation. During peak flows, additional monitoring is carried out."

There was a third recommendation: that weather stations be flood-proofed so that data could be recorded and transmitted to Environment Canada on a real-time basis.

In this incident, starting on Oct. 17 all the real-time data sites in Howe Sounds, Whistler and Pemberton were down.

Since 2003, Environment Canada has upgraded all existing automated weather stations in the Sea to Sky Corridor and installed several new stations. These upgrades included the installation of a high-volume, all-weather precipitation weighing gauge to measure the amount of precipitation; a tipping bucket rain gauge to measure the rate of rainfall; and snow sensors to measure the depth of snow.

All the stations have also been installed on elevated platforms to minimize the impact of heavy rains on the stations and they report 24/7.

For the friends and families of the victims of the Rutherford bridge washout, a decade has passed and yet, despite all the explanations and reports, the story of what went wrong that night on Highway 99 would never really be complete.

For Kaitlyn McDonough, however, the journey for answers is really just beginning.

She's speaking out in the hopes of finding someone.

"Basically, I'm more interested in trying to see if any of (my dad's) family want to contact me," she said.

At 21 years old, she may yet find what she's been searching for.

With historical reporting from Kevin Damaskie and Mary-Jane Pemberton