Huge rock slide closes Highway 99

Road could remain closed for five days: travellers sent scrambling

A collapsed cliff just north of Porteau Cove stopped all traffic on Highway 99 and the adjacent CN Rail track late Tuesday (July 29), and because of the need to ensure the safety of workers moving in to clear the debris, officials weren't saying for sure when the highway might reopen.

The rock slide, which occurred on Tuesday at 11:18 p.m., brought an estimated 16,000 cubic metres of rock onto the highway. The amount is almost a quarter of what was excavated out of Doodson's Corner, Ministry of Transportation (MOT) officials said. The debris covered approximately 60 metres of the highway, officials said.

A northbound Perimeter shuttle bus from Vancouver International Airport to Whistler narrowly escaped being crushed by the slide.

"We are feeling a little blessed today," said Perimeter vice president Mike Cafferky. "We have a blessed driver."

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The driver of the bus heard a rumble and took evasive action, Cafferky said. "We're lucky he was alert."

Three out of the four side windows were struck by falling rock, and the vehicle also sustained some damage to the fibreglass on the side, Cafferky said.

The bus was only carrying one passenger, who was shaken from the incident. Because there was glass all over the vehicle, Perimeter officials put the passenger on a taxi to Whistler and then deadheaded the bus to Whistler to be repaired.

"So far everyone's been good. They understand," said Cafferky. "Our system is reservation-based, so we have been able to contact most guests and offer them (the alternative)."

Perimeter had to cancel all trips along the Sea to Sky corridor for Wednesday (July 30), and has anticipated doing so for Thursday (July 31) as well.

"We are running one trip in each direction via the Duffey Lake Road, and are planning to do the same thing tomorrow," said Cafferky.

The slide created headaches for those trying to reach Vancouver from Whistler, and a bit of a buying spree for certain essential items.

"It's kind of chaotic," said Dee Toporoski, who works at Whistler's Visitor Centre. "People have been changing flight information.

"People want to go to Vancouver. They have to do things there or on the island," she said.

"They're really frustrated."

At Nesters Market, people were purchasing up a storm, stocking up on basic essentials like bread, milk and eggs.

"They just don't want to be caught without their groceries," said Nesters employee Carla Espinoza.

"We don't know if we'll get our dairy truck," she said. "Our grocery truck will go around (the slide), but the dairy truck won't."

"I don't know why they think we're going to run out of food, but they just don't want to run out of food."

As of 1:15 p.m. on Wednesday, MOT officials had no idea when the highway would reopen.

"Some of these boulders are massive," said MOT spokesperson Jeff Knight. "The clean up is going to require blasting."

Before work crews could go on site to begin removing the debris, the rock face must be assessed to ensure it is stable and will not slide again, Knight said.

"Geotechnical engineers are on site right now assessing the stability of the slope above the slide," Knight said. "Cleanup will begin once the assessment says that it is safe to do so.

"We have no estimate at this point (of when the highway will reopen)."

The primary concern is whether there are any victims buried underneath the 16,000 cubic metres of rock.

"(The driver of the Perimeter bus) can't confirm there were people travelling in the same areas as him," said RCMP Cpl. Dave Ritchie. "He doesn't recall what went past him or how long, so we really don't have any idea, other than it's not unusual at 11:18 p.m. to have people on the highway. If it had been 4 a.m. it would have been different."

"We don't know if anyone is under there," he said, adding that RCMP officers have done both air and coastal searches.

Police have also sent two dogs over the site, and have found nothing. "We haven't had any reports of overdue people, but are encouraging people that if they had someone travelling and are overdue to call," Cpl. Ritchie said.

Southbound traffic was stopped and turned around at Britannia Beach. Northbound traffic was stopped at Lions Bay.

Travel options, other than the Duffey Lake Road, include a water taxi service from Squamish Tug, or flights from Sea to Sky Air and Glacier Air.

This is the Sea to Sky's fourth rock slide since work to upgrade the highway began. Ministry of Transportation officials are adamant that the slide had nothing to do with the highway repairs.

"This wasn't near a construction site," said Knight. "Rock slides are a naturally occurring event.

"We can't predict when they're going to happen."

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