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One year later

Wife recalls last day for family before flood took its human toll.

It was one of those great family days, where mom and dad lounged on the couch and the baby was perfectly content on his own.

Dad grabbed a little shut-eye, knowing that this Friday night was probably going to be busy at Moe Joe’s, the popular Whistler nightclub where he worked.

And Mom left him alone, content to watch his relaxed body sprawled on the couch from the corner of her eye.

As usual just before dad left for work he bent down to kiss his three-month-old baby boy’s downy head and said: "See you in a couple of hours."

It’s been a year since Katie Burnette heard her husband Jamie utter those few words, but the memory of them and their last day together is as fresh as if it all happened yesterday.

Jamie, along with his good friend Ed Elliott, died in the early morning hours of October 18, 2003 when their red Chevy Blazer plunged into the churning waters of the Rutherford Creek after the bridge had washed away after days of monsoon-like rain.

Jamie’s younger brother Casey miraculously escaped the SUV after listening to Jamie tell him to calm down, take a deep breath, and swim out the smashed window of the sinking car as soon as he could.

All were travelling from their Whistler jobs to their Pemberton homes when the accident happened.

Two other bar workers from the Boot Pub, Daryl Stevenson, 31 and Michael Benoit, 29, also lost their lives that night when they drove off the end of the missing bridge and landed in the swollen creek.

Katie sensed something was wrong long before she learned the awful truth.

"It was 4a.m. and I had this sickening feeling in my stomach because I just couldn’t understand where he was," said Katie, who now lives near Ottawa, near her family and in-laws, with 15-month old Cole.

Jamie had always made a point of coming right home after work since the baby had been born.

After calling her mom in Ontario to voice her concerns, the police, and emergency services, Katie called Elliott’s girlfriend over for coffee and they kept each other company while they listened to the news of the washed out bridge and the devastation of the floods.

Around 7:30 a.m. Casey called Katie from the Pemberton Healthcare Centre where he was recovering after his escape from the river.

"I got Cole dressed and went over there," recalled Katie.

"Casey had been stripped naked and he was under thermal blankets and I looked in the corner of the room and his clothes were soaking wet on the floor.

"I knew exactly what had happened when I saw his clothes on the floor. I knew they had gone into the river.

"I don’t ever remember asking Casey any questions about it. I just held his hand for, God, I don’t even know how long.

"We just cried and cried and cried and I knew Jamie was gone at that point."

Jamie and Ed’s remains have never been found.

But devastation soon turned to hope as Katie began to think that if Casey had got out then why couldn’t Jamie have escaped.

A huge search and rescue effort was mounted, but after four days of intensive air and ground searches it was halted.

Katie doesn’t remember sleeping for days and days. But as the inevitable reality set in that Jamie was gone the young single mother began to try to get her life back in order.

Friends were holding benefits for her to help out financially as she struggled with the mortgage of the first home she and Jamie had ever bought together, and Casey was there for her too.

"I am overwhelmed by how great everyone has been," said Katie. "I don’t know how I would have got through it."

The weeks slipped into months. But for Katie there was no escape from her new reality.

"When they started to rebuild the bridge it killed me," said Katie.

"I couldn’t go across the bridge anymore. I would drive past the place they were rebuilding and I would want to roll down my window and yell at them, ‘do you know why you are re-building?’

"It was too much, way too much.

"…I realized that the world was still spinning and I was sitting here waiting for Jamie to come home."

Casey spent all the time he could with his brother’s wife and child but the accident haunted him too and he moved back to Whistler last spring.

And there were days, said Katie, when if it hadn’t been for Cole she would never have gotten out of bed.

So last May Katie made the hard decision to leave Pemberton and her family’s many friends and to move back to Ontario to be close to her family and Cole’s grandparents - a move she said was only possible because of all the help she has received from locals.

"I also got so tired of driving that road to Whistler looking for Jamie, thinking he was up there, that he had managed to get high up on the mountain and he was just waiting for someone to pick him up," said Katie, who met Jamie while they were completing a law and security program at an Ontario college.

She kept the house the Pemberton though; "…so he knows that I didn’t leave him."

Katie has also launched a lawsuit against several defendents including the provincial government, Pemberton, Whistler and the contractor in charge of the roads.

"(The way I am thinking) is that it could have been prevented," she said.

"It was so preventable and it has had such an impact on our lives and the (families) of those who died in the accident.

"If I knew how it happened then that would mean that someone else knew how it happened and that would mean they would make sure it didn’t happen again."

She would like to see a system of warning signals put on bridges around the province so that if a bridge is ever washed out those driving toward it can stop before it’s too late.

The court case might also bring closure for Katie

"…maybe it would make things easier if someone said, ‘Jamie died,’ she said.

"Because to me he is still alive. All I did was say goodnight and he was supposed to come home."

In fact, Jamie hated goodbyes and avoided them whenever possible, which is one of the reasons his family and friends decided not to hold a memorial for him.

"He used to say to me, ‘I wish we could just disappear in the middle of the night and avoid the whole goodbye thing,’" recalled Katie.

"And the fact is he did disappear in the middle of the night so I would like to give that to him."

For Katie, Jamie will never say goodbye as she sees him looking back at her from Cole’s eyes.

"I see him in Cole every day, every day," she said.

"He helps me so much but it also makes me very sad.

"I think about how do I raise a little boy with no dad. I dread those days when kids are at school making Father’s Day cards or being at a hockey game where the dad is a coach on the hockey team – that part overwhelms (me) a little bit sometimes.

"But we just keep cruising day to day.

"I can’t give him back his Dad but I can do my best to give him a stable life and love him."




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