Today marks 50 years since one of the deadliest telecommunications accidents in our state – the Canyonville Slide. Nine men lost their lives while attempting to restore telephone service that incidentally played a crucial role in the rescue and recovery mission. While technology has changed tremendously in the past half century, nature is mercilessly unpredictable.
How it happened
For two days, January 15 and 16, 1974, heavy rains drenched the Roseburg area, causing three horrific slides of mud, rock, and trees on the east slope of Canyon Mountain. During the first slide, a coaxial cable was severed between Myrtle Creek and Glendale. This set off an alarm at the Roseburg central office, signaling the failure of the Portland-Sacramento cable. Since this was a major long-distance network, a crew of more than 40 men from Pacific Northwest Bell and Sage Pipeline, Inc. were sent out to repair the damage immediately. The crews had to dig through debris from the first slide and deeper into a pit to expose more of the cable in order to repair the damage. The crews worked for hours while the rains continued. Then, at approximately 6:45 PM on January 16, the 2nd slide, containing over 300,000 cubic meters of debris, pummeled the mountainside, razing the relay hut, squashing pickup trucks and construction vehicles to nearly nothing, and worst of all, covering nine men who were still working in and around the relay hut and unable to escape.
We know from news articles from that time that the death toll could have been much higher, and several survivors gave their first-hand accounts of the terrifying incident. Bob Cook said the noise became a rumble and then a roar. “Debris started falling near me. I started hollering’ slide’ and running. Before I got to the freeway, I was hit, knocked down, and got up. I was hit again by a tree and thrown some 30 feet to the side of the highway.” Bob was saved from serious injury by his hard hat. It was jammed down on his forehead, causing cuts and bruises, and his safety glasses were pushed onto his face, causing lacerations around the nose and a black eye. Still, his life was spared. As others were trying to escape in their vehicles, one survivor said the wind from the slide “pushed my pickup so much I couldn’t control it.”
After the slide stopped, there was complete silence and only a six-inch flow of muddy water where Canyon Creek had been raging. The survivors slowly approached the worksite and called out for their workers, thoroughly searching the area and remaining vehicles. They were able to use mobile phones and transmitter radios to call for rescue. Unfortunately, the slide had created tremendous water pressure by blocking the creek, and before too long, the center of the slide “raised up like a mushroom pushed by water.” The third slide pushed one of the construction rigs, and the men watched it bounce down the mountain “like a Tonka Toy.”
Help arrived within 30 minutes, but the construction crews had already begun setting up lights and searching the area for any possible survivors. However, in the dark and wet conditions, the search was fruitless. Rescue teams would continue searching for nine more days. “Those nine days were to sorely try the strength and souls of the families who had lost their men and, just as much, the men who were trying desperately to find them.” After a lengthy, painstaking search, the bodies of the nine victims were recovered, and memorial services were held.
Our commitment to safety
It is sobering to remember a tragedy of such magnitude, particularly as it impacted the industry in which we work. It was the most tragic accident in the history of Pacific Northwest Bell and certainly remains one of the most horrifying accidents known to have happened in Oregon. As we honor and remember those who were lost on that tragic day, we renew our commitment to make sure our employees return home from work safely at the end of each day.