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HomeBusinessExclusive: Timeline revealed in Metro Vancouver’s deadly Capilano River surge

Exclusive: Timeline revealed in Metro Vancouver’s deadly Capilano River surge


Bob Mackin

While disaster unfolded Oct. 1 on the Capilano River, a Metro Vancouver bureaucrat was beaming about the possibilities of a federal funding announcement.

“You’ve likely already seen this, but the Prime Minister announced today $10 billion in new major infrastructure initiatives to create 60,000 jobs and economic growth,” wrote Metro Vancouver external relations director Heather Schoemaker in documents released under the freedom of information law.

Mid-October photograph of the Cleveland Dam spillway into the Capilano River (Mackin)

Just a few minutes earlier, a chain of events was underway at the Cleveland Dam, but it would take a while for the incident to be widely communicated.

A torrent of water rushed down the Capilano River without any warning to those who were fishing. Metro Vancouver commissioner Jerry Dobrovolny later blamed human error in the deaths of North Vancouver artist Ryan Nickerson and his son Hugh. At the end of October, three workers were fired.

Email from Oct. 1, released to, includes the timeline for the incident.

As workers were conducting maintenance work on the dam, the drum gate — the barrier that holds water in the reservoir — was locked out during work.

At 1:21 p.m., the drum gate re-engaged but did not operate as expected and continued past the set point.

It was fully opened at 1:46 p.m. Six minutes later, at 1:52 p.m., manual operation was initiated to close the drum gate. It was fully closed by 2:08 p.m.

Almost an hour later, a 3:04 p.m., an “emerging incident report” to Metro Vancouver staff from duty officer Will Beatty said rescue crews were on the Capilano River.

“NV Fire dispatch called with inquiries about MV’s spillway control, as fire services and search and rescue are on scene attempting to rescue two people from the Capilano River. MV Parks staff are on scene with the fire services incident commander and MV water services have been notified,” Beatty wrote.

Diagram showing the Cleveland Dam drum gate allowing water on the spillway.
(Metro Vancouver)

Under “anticipated impacts and duration”, Beatty wrote: “None, although the extent of the rescue is unknown and could potentially impact Capilano River Regional Park. Potential media interest.”

The emerging incident report about the Capilano River came, coincidentally, four minutes after one alerting staff about a sewer leak at the Crescent Beach foreman in South Surrey.

Inside Metro Vancouver, communications staff decided what they would tell the media.

“Metro Vancouver was doing maintenance on the dam and at approximately 1:30 p.m. there was a malfunction of such the the drum gate opened and a large volume of water — a significant surge over the drum gate, equivalent to a heavy rain event — flowed down the mouth of the river,” wrote Schoemaker at 3:40 p.m. ”Flow in the river has been reduced and stabilized and Metro Vancouver staff are now working through an investigation of the event and taking steps to ensure this will not happen again.

“DNV fire and rescue on site and conducting a full sweep of the river. At least four people in the process of being rescued — uncertain if there are others and the extent of injuries is unknown.”

Metro Vancouver spokesman Don Bradley wrote at 4:03 p.m. that he spoke with the North Vancouver RCMP public information officer. “There is now one confirmed fatality and they are preparing to release a public statement.”

Bradley proposed a statement that included this line: “An unknown number of people were reportedly swept downstream and rescue efforts are currently underway including a step of the river.”

Capilano Reservoir (Mackin)

The draft at 4:15 p.m. from communications director Amanda McCuaig said “an unknown number of people have been impacted by the surge.”

A shorter statement at 4:42 p.m. omitted mention of victims altogether.

Same with Dobrovolny’s 5:13 p.m. staff memo.

General manager of parks, Neal Carley, recounted, in a 7:15 p.m. email, the 4:15 p.m. situation report from the emergency operations centre in the 28th floor conference room at Metro Vancouver headquarters. Eleven officials were in-person and two attended by phone.

Carley wrote that watershed operations manager Mike Mayers had been contacted at 2:14 p.m. by North Shore Rescue, which said it was initiating a search of the river.

“Reports that four people were stranded on an island in the river, two rescued and evacuated, two swept downstream and rescued/evacuated, a fifth person was found in distress.”

NSR called off the search around 5:20 p.m.

Metro Vancouver has yet to publish the incident report, after Dobrovolny promised one. The regional district government is also working on a report to be submitted to WorkSafeBC.

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