Children rescued after spending night alone on Burke Mountain

Search for six and seven year olds like tracking Hansel and Gretel in the forest, Coquitlam Search and Rescue volunteer says

Two young children were rescued out of a deep ravine on the heavily-forested slopes of Burke Mountain Monday morning after trained teams found the pair huddled together under a grey jacket.

It was an anxious night for the parents, visiting the area from Georgia in the U.S, and for the dozens of search and rescue volunteers from as far away as Surrey, the North Shore and the Fraser Valley who spent more than 12 hours looking for the pair.

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“It was hard work by some very dedicated ground people, using the information we were getting and having experienced command people to help us narrow down the circle that we could throw all our assets at,” recalled Alan Hurley, who was one of two rescuers who hauled the children to safety at approximately 9 a.m. Monday morning via helicopter longline.

Searchers were called out at approximately 7 p.m. Sunday night after Coquitlam Fire Rescue and the BC Ambulance Service realized the children were not going to be found easily in the treacherous terrain where Deiner Creek cuts through the mountain like a grinder through stone.

Their father, who had left the pair behind while he went for help, and was himself injured, managed to hike out of the ravine and down a trail to Quarry Road behind Minnekhada Regional Park.

From there, he got help from a hiker to call 911.

Eventually, the information was patched through to Coquitlam Search and Rescue whose members faced one of their toughest challenges in recent years, with darkness approaching and two children somewhere in the woods.

Search and rescue helicopter
Search and rescue crews prepare for a longline rescue of children and crews off Burke Mountain on Monday morning. - Coquitlam Search and Rescue

“They said kids were up the creek half an hour, if things were that easy they would be easy, but they’re not,” acknowledged Ian MacDonald, who was among the first searchers to be airlifted into the area.

The family hike started as all hikes do — with a sense of optimism. Sunday morning was sunny and there was no hint of a change in the weather. That would come nearly 24 hours later when the children were lifted out by longline and the rain began to fall in heavy sheets.

The couple, identified as the Hoogstra’s by other media, had been staying at a local bed and breakfast. When the father chose a hike to Munro Lake, he had no idea that snow might throw him off the path and the hike would become extremely dangerous, both for himself and his kids.

Many have done the hike from the gates near the Port Coquitlam and District Hunting and Fishing Club on Harper Road up to a deserted ski lodge and beyond. But when the family lost the path, instead of returning the way they came, they kept pressing east through the low underbrush, past huge boulders and over fallen logs.

Holding hands to stay together, the six-year-old daughter fell first, reports indicate, followed by the rest of the family, down a steep ravine.

“It’s an easy mistake to make when you don’t know the area, the trails are convoluted and markings are not the best,” commented Hurley, a veteran searcher with 26 years of experience working on Burke Mountain terrain. 

“They think creeks are a way to safety and a lot end up in sheer drop-offs.”

They ended on a dirt patch, with waterfalls above and below, and a steep ascent to get out of trouble. For the father, it was a choice of staying put or going for help. 

“They felt desperate enough. I can’t imagine the gut wrenching decision,” Hurley said.

It may have been a smart decision because by 7:10 p.m., Coquitlam Search and Rescue had began putting together a 30-member team, along with Coquitlam RCMP whose members were prepared to deploy a search dog. Talon Helicopters rounded out the search team, provideing air support so the crews could get on and off the mountain.

Hospitalized briefly, the father was allowed to return to the command post, which had been set up in the Minnekhada Regional Park parking lot off Quarry Road. 

He stayed in a private section of the Coquitlam SAR command vehicle supported by a member of the Coquitlam RCMP Victim Services.

It would be a long night. 

Rescue 1
Crews show relief at conclusion of search and rescue of two children off Burke Mountain in Coquitlam - Coquitlam Search and Rescue

Using radios to communicate, two teams were deployed as daylight began to wane, one working up the mountain, another group of volunteers working their way down.

“You couldn’t see your feet,” said Hurley who was on a high ridge, and worried that he or his colleagues might end up plunging over a cliff. “That’s when we decided nobody commits to the upper drainages until daylight.”

When MacDonald took over command of the rescue mission at 6:30 a.m. on Monday morning, the atmosphere in the command vehicle was tense.

“We were all quite worried for the children. They were six and seven and alone and in frankly dangerous terrain, particularly if they got scared and started moving. If they had started moving it would have been disastrous.”

Then the news started to trickle in: a backpack had been found, then a pair of blue shoes.

"It was like Hansel and Gretel, first you get breadcrumbs of information, then clues," Hurley said.

At 8:30 a.m. rescuers found the children and quickly bundled them into warm blankets, hugging them until the helicopter arrived with Coquitlam SAR members dangling from a rope, with a harness and rigging to lift the children out of danger.

Hurley and his colleague gathered the youngsters into their harnesses, fitted them with a helmet and goggles and supported them with their arms for the short ride to safety and the waiting arms of their parents.

Rain had just begun to fall but the sense of relief was palpable.

“We handed them over to the ambulance, then flew back to start the extraction of the rest of the crew. It was nice to see the big grins.”

The children were packed off into an ambulance with their father and whisked off to Royal Columbian Hospital. Not long after, they were released, it appeared, no worse for wear.

It would take crews another hour or more to longline all the volunteers off the mountain, the soggy skies making the helicopter evacuation somewhat precarious.

For MacDonald, who held a tailgate debriefing with team members immediately after the rescue, the biggest question isn’t how good a job they did but why they had to do it at all.

The woods around the Tri-Cities might seem unthreatening, but a small series of errors can stack up and lead to catastrophic results.

“Going for a fishing trip without adequate gear, not being dressed for the conditions, straying off the trail and not turning around, and when it’s seeming that the terrain is getting steeper and steeper and continuing down rather than going back up — [those were] the choice points the dad had on the way.” 

“He didn’t do things deliberately but they weren’t in retrospect the best choices.”

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