National News

Four lives swept away in Alberta floods

Amber Rancourt is shown in a family handout photo. Raging flood waters killed four people in southern Alberta one year ago. Two were swept away as they tried to evacuate from High River, one of the hardest hit communities. Rancourt was caught off guard while camping south of the town, along the Highwood River. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO -
Amber Rancourt is shown in a family handout photo. Raging flood waters killed four people in southern Alberta one year ago. Two were swept away as they tried to evacuate from High River, one of the hardest hit communities. Rancourt was caught off guard while camping south of the town, along the Highwood River. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO
— image credit:

By Chris Purdy, The Canadian Press

Raging flood waters killed four people in southern Alberta one year ago. Two were swept away as they tried to evacuate from High River, one of the hardest hit communities. One woman was caught off guard while camping south of the town, along the Highwood River. And when the flood put parts of Calgary under water, a senior drowned alone in her main floor condo.

Amber Rancourt, 35.

She was a spontaneous, fiery woman from Sault Ste. Marie in northern Ontario, who tossed a dart at a map on a wall and headed for Alberta.

Amber Rancourt was tending bar at a hotel in the village of Longview when she met a mechanic named Scott, who often stopped in for coffee. He fell fast for the woman who shared his affection for animals.

They were married five months later in front of stunned guests during a surprise ceremony. The groom wanted so much to honour his new bride, he took her last name.

A month shy of their second wedding anniversary, they were camping on a friend's ranch south of Longview, along the Highwood River, when the flood struck.

Scott Rancourt says he woke up in the early hours of June 20, looked out the camper window and saw water rushing everywhere around them.

They were both worried about the horse they had brought with them, so Scott waded through the current with the animal and got it to safety.

But he never made it back to his wife.

Pushed back by rising water and debris, the man managed to climb on top of their horse trailer but couldn't reach the camper. He was eventually rescued by helicopter but it was unable to reach the woman.

She had been pinned underneath an uprooted tree near the campsite.

He went back the next day, used a chainsaw to free her, then carried out her body.

"Amber was my everything," he says. "She was the only person I ever truly loved."

Rancourt is saving money to start a ranch for rescued animals that the couple had dreamed of opening someday.

He's also selling copies of the "Cowgirl Country Cookbook," a collection of his wife's recipes that she finished just before she died.

She loved to cook, bake and decorate cakes, he says. His favourite treat? Her white-chocolate, macadamia-nut cookies, which she somehow turned into a cake on their wedding day.

"We only had a short time together," he says. "But it was a lifetime."

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Jacqueline Brocklebank, 33.

Jacqui Brocklebank's family describe her as a happy-go-lucky woman with an infectious smile, who was also stubborn and determined to live on her own in High River.

Born with cerebral palsy, she worked various jobs at fast food restaurants and grocery stores, through a society that supports adults with developmental disabilities.

She filled her home with plants, worked on intricate puzzles and was so sociable that she knew many people in town by name. She had a boyfriend in Calgary and two loyal cocker spaniels named Tazz and Bugs.

When flooding hit the town, Brocklebank became worried when she couldn't reach a friend by phone and took a cab to the woman's home.

Mac Brocklebank says his daughter took along her pets, who went everywhere with her. She found her friend and encouraged her to leave, but the pair found themselves struggling to walk through deep, raging water.

They held onto each other, and the two dogs, for as long as they could. But Brocklebank went under.

"It was like a small river coming at her," says Brocklebank's father. "She got washed off the sidewalk."

Her parents called her cellphone to make sure she got out of town, then grew worried when they couldn't reach her.

RCMP later told them they found her body.

They never found her dogs.

In her obituary, her family wrote that Brocklebank's love of family and friends is why she headed into the flood, "as she would not leave her friend behind."

"She left this world helping others, which is what she loved doing. We are forever proud of our special girl."

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Dominic Pearce, 52.

Dominic Pearce served in the army for several years before retiring as a sergeant.

But with a young son in Nova Scotia, the man who hailed from a large family in Newfoundland's Boyd's Cove headed to northern Alberta's oilsands like so many others from the East Coast before him.

When he had days off at a stretch, he sometimes went south to the High River home of his longtime friend Sean Morrow.

Morrow says they'd drink beer while listening to music in the kitchen or head to a local bar where Pearce would buy a round for everyone in the joint.

He could finish a crossword puzzle in a flash, says Morrow. And because of his time in the military, Pearce always looked clean cut.

That's why the day the town flooded, when Morrow's girlfriend warned the men they needed to hurry and get out, Pearce took his time and shaved.

When Pearce, Morrow and a friend named Fish left the house minutes later, the water was already up to their waists and too high for them to drive away in a truck. The three men waded into a nearby yard, found a small boat and grabbed two fence pickets for paddles.

It was raining and freezing cold. The water was moving with force, says Morrow. At one point, the boat tipped over and Fish was able to get on top of a camper.

Pearce and Morrow managed to scramble back into the boat, but they weren't hopeful.

"We both knew we were screwed," Morrow says.

They didn't talk. Morrow says Pearce gave him a knowing look and a shrug as if to say, "It's been fun but I think we're going to die ... the party's over.'"

The boat flipped again, says Morrow, and his friend was gone.

Morrow managed to keep one hand on the boat and the other on something he believes was a garbage bin. A rescue crew in a motorboat picked him up, along with Fish. They searched briefly for Pearce, but Morrow told them it was no use.

Pearce's body was found the next day.

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Lorraine Gerlitz, 83.

Her Calgary condo was full of cat figurines. Each summer, there were pots full of pansies on her patio.

Lorraine Gerlitz had no close family. She and her husband had worked with the homeless for several years at the Salvation Army before he died, and the couple had no children. She had a cat named Lucy.

Gerlitz and her next-door neighbour Yvonne Scott became close friends. The pair went to church together on Sundays, exchanged meals of meatloaf and stew, and called each day to check in and make sure the other was fine.

Gerlitz was growing frail, had had some recent bad falls and didn't hear well, says Scott.

But when police officers and firefighters knocked on the main floor units in the building, urging residents to flee, Scott thought Gerlitz would be fine.

Scott's two children were picking her up when she met Gerlitz in the hallway.

"We gave each other a good hug and she kind of had tears in her eyes," recalls the 79-year-old. "She said she'd be OK."

Gerlitz told her that if the flood came, she'd go up to a friend's condo on the third floor. That friend, says Scott, assumed Gerlitz was with Scott.

It wasn't until a couple of days later, when Scott's children took her home to assess the water damage, that they looked inside Gerlitz's place and found her in her pyjamas, lying dead inside the doorway. Her cat was hiding on top of the kitchen cupboards.

An autopsy determined Gerlitz had drowned, says Scott, but it remains a mystery as to why.

Scott wonders if Gerlitz lost her footing on the slippery river water as it filled her condo, reaching about 1.5 metres high.

Gerlitz left some money in her will to a cat charity, says Scott, and a family friend has adopted Lucy.

Scott says she misses her dear friend.

"I can't believe that it's been almost a year," says Scott. "I'll never forget her."

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