Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Quebec landslide survivor's chilling ordeal

Heard cries of 'we're sliding. We're going to die!'

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TERREBONNE, Que. -- The survivor of a landslide has shared the harrowing story of his escape.

Benoit Robert told reporters Wednesday how he survived the previous day's incident in a Quebec gravel quarry, while two of his colleagues were still missing.

He choked up as he described the events, expressing his sadness over the ordeal his missing colleagues' families are facing.

"It's hard, what I went through. But I'm still here," Robert said.

"I don't know if they are."

He said when the ground began to rumble beneath him in L'Epiphanie, Que., at first he thought he was having vision problems.

He was operating a hydraulic shovel. He said a female colleague in another vehicle, a truck, shouted, "'We're sliding. We're going to die!"'

That woman is now missing.

Robert said he knew he would perish if he jumped from his vehicle; so instead he operated the big mechanical shovel, swinging it back and forth while trying to keep stable.

That's when he began to slide -- about seven metres at first, then 50 more, he said.

"There was like a little avalanche in front of me. I knew that if I jumped out I'd die immediately," said Robert, 47.

After sliding the second time, he swung the shovel again and lodged it against the wall of earth. Once he felt the ground stabilize, he said he hopped out of the vehicle.

He walked another 50 metres until he reached a snowy plateau.

A provincial police helicopter swooped in later to evacuate him, lifting him up in a dramatic rescue operation.

But his colleagues, one woman and one man, haven't been found.

Before the helicopter arrived, Robert said he called out to the partly submerged truck, asking anyone in there to make a sound or knock if they were inside.

But he said he didn't hear a response.

Rescue crews later managed to get into the truck, but they didn't find anyone. They suspended their search overnight and resumed it Wednesday morning with sniffer dogs.

They vowed Wednesday to keep working around the clock.

Bruno Marier of the Repentigny Fire Service said searchers could, in theory, be forced to stop because of unstable soil or for safety reasons.

"But we will be at this day and night," Marier said.

A team of about 60 people has been working to find the missing pair. The team includes geological engineers, safety commission inspectors, firefighters, a provincial police helicopter and a canine unit.

Marier said searchers hadn't lost hope the two missing people were still alive.

"We certainly hope we can find survivors," he said.

Meanwhile Wednesday, Robert was recovering in a hospital just east of Montreal. That's where he met reporters to make a brief statement about the incident.

He said he didn't blame his employers, Maskimo Construction Inc., whom he described as responsible and supportive.

He expressed gratitude for being alive.

"I thank God," he said, choking up again.

"I'm lucky. Others weren't as lucky as me."

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 31, 2013 A13

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