Sparwood avalanche remembered

On December 28, 2008 two groups of recreational snowmobilers journeyed into the backcountry south of Fernie, British Columbia. Eleven men died that day, killed by a succession of avalanches. Most of the men were from the nearby mining town of Sparwood.

I was sent with a reporter to Sparwood a year later to see how the East Kooteney town was still dealing with the tragedy.

It’s always amazing how open and welcoming people can be even when discussing the most personal of subjects. Though most of the victim’s families were hoping to simply have their loved ones honoured in tribute pieces, with enough prodding they opened up and began describing the various stages of their grief.

Kurt Kabel’s wife and son, Lori and Eric, 17 months, and parents, Jack and Charmaine, remember him as a sensible man. “He was pretty straight laced,” says Charmaine. “But he was always at the party.”

The family has rallied around Eric. Lori is determined, with the help of her in-laws, to raise her son the way Kurt had intended. “Kurt wanted to make sure Eric was going to be a standup man,” she says. “The first Father’s Day, I know how proud he would have been.”Rose and Garry Bjarnason lost their son Danny in the avalanches. They say the pain is shared by everyone in the community. “As bad as it was for each family, you hurt for everyone else, too,” says Rose. “I doubt there’s a person in this town that didn’t know one of them boys or were friends with their families,” says Garry.Thumbing through photos is a common practice as the families of the victims still try to comprehend their loss. “You’re just numb,” says Dianne Rusnak, mother to victim Kane Rusnak. “You go through the motions. Some days you’re still kind of just … numb.”

Sparwood resident Jeff Adams was one of three survivors. He became one of the faces of the tragedy after he told his story at a press conference a few days after the avalanches. After pulling each other out of the snow, Jeff and the other survivors decided that they couldn’t help their buried friends. They were eventually picked up by a rescue helicopter.

Adams has been left to deal with the events of that day and the impact on his life. “The pressure, the stress, the shoulda, coulda, wouldas — and whys — just take a toll on you,” he says.

Adams has found it difficult dealing with the loss of so many men he was close to, especially Danny Bjarnason and Kane Rusnak. “I lost my two best friends. Two friends that are simply irreplaceable. I’m at the point where I can think of my friends and the first thing that comes to mind isn’t the avalanche, it’s something we did in the past. But everyday I wake up and there’s that making that decision. It just haunts me.”

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Images ©2009 Stuart Gradon/Calgary Herald

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