The red circle shows the approximate location where McKenzie and his wife stopped their car. /RMG GRAPHIC VIA GOOGLE MAPS

By Laura Keil

Michael McKenzie and his wife believed they were headed up Hargreaves Road to locate the Mt. Robson Heritage Cabins early Saturday morning Sept. 17th. The pair took a wrong turn and found themselves at a set of train tracks with an old shed constructed from rail ties at the base of a steep slope. They paused there wondering if they should carry on; something about the water drizzling down the shed roof made McKenzie hesitate.

“That water saved our lives,” he said.

As they sat there wondering if the cabins were further down that road, they heard a tremendous rumble and rocks began skidding down the hill past their vehicle. 

“I just remember yelling ‘back up! back up!’ I felt this tension across my body and I looked in the rearview mirror and rocks are coming down behind us and I looked ahead of us there were some wood chips and water and rocks coming in front of us and I honestly thought we were done for.”

A former firefighter, McKenzie shifted into his emergency training and from the passenger seat pushed the gearshift into reverse – but it slid back into park. He popped it back into reverse, and told his wife to hit the gas as hard as she could. 

“She backed up as fast as she could. We were driving backwards (by) looking through the rearview mirrors and at the camera and then – I think this was only about 10 seconds, because it feels like everything just slowed down – all of a sudden most of that shed on the railway track was taken out and a massive rock almost twice the size of our car landed right where our car had been.”

He said they kept backing up and told a nearby Trans Mountain security official what had happened hoping they could call 911. The man told them he couldn’t, which Mackenzie thought was strange. “I don’t know if they knew that they could – I forgot that I could because you can call 911 anywhere (even where there is limited cell reception).”

McKenzie and his wife drove to the ranger station and rangers phoned CN.

“I was really worried about a train coming,” he said. “If you would have come from east to west on that track, you would have come around the corner and it would have been really dark – there’s no light in the tunnel – you’d just enter the front part of the tunnel and then suddenly, you’d run right into the rockslide.”

Near derailment

Don Bruce-Fuoco, head of Ledcor security, heard from a security guard over the radio about the landslide. As he worked to confirm the landslide’s details, he noticed a passenger train heading north.

“The part that scared me was when that passenger train came through Valemount because it was going. And one of the folks in town I was talking to said they have to take a run at that hill.” 

Bruce-Fuoco, a former RCMP officer and CN police, confirmed the slide with the guard at Hargreaves and called CN police to stop the trains.

“One track protection employee, an old fellow who’s worked that mountain a lot of years, he came down (from seeing the slide) and looked pretty shaken up.” 

The Goat reached out to CN about the clean-up and whether an geotech assessment had been completed following the slide but CN did not reply to that question.

A CN spokesperson confirmed the company received reports of multiple rocks/boulders coming down and impacting track infrastructure near Mt. Robson Park shortly before 10a.m.

“It took our team approximately 8 hours to safely clean and repair the damage, which resulted in the first train through just prior to 7 pm local time. CN crews continue to monitor the location.”

Lingering disbelief

McKenzie said he’s been in the mountains his whole life, but never expected something like this to happen.

“I remember telling myself ‘Okay, the shed’s been here for probably like 50 years and it’s still here.’ Then it’s gone. Yeah. This is not a normal day.”

“I’ve been around these mountains my entire life. You just get used to trusting them and I still have this tremendous amount of trust.”

He said he’ll never forget when that massive boulder the size of an SUV landed where their car had been only seconds before.

McKenzie met a CN employee at a rest stop a couple days after and learned no one had been hurt.

“Is it ever fortunate someone was up there,” Don-Fuoco says. “It’s just a lucky string of events that everything came together.”

McKenzie is still processing what happened.

“Who knows the real reason the universe wanted us there that day; I really hope that everything got figured out.”

He wants to thank the CN employees who go in afterwards to clean up.

“I’d like to commend the workers who go out there on those tracks and do that work. That is scary stuff.”