It was a beautiful day in Sarita Bay. The Christmas season had just passed and a winter high-pressure weather pattern gave ten days of sunshine and daily cold outflow winds blowing from the north. The front had started to shift and now the wind was blowing down Alberni Inlet and on out to the mouth of Barkley Sound.
A warm front was moving in and as the wind swung through the compass points the first wisps of high cloud could be seen trailing in from the southeast. On the windrose graphic prepared for the environmental assessment for the Sarita LNG Project, the frequency and intensity of winds blowing down the Alberni Inlet past Bamfield towards the open ocean were minimal. For the evaluators, this was one of those relatively uncommon events, but for the locals, it was a normal, although not an everyday, occurrence. It is called weather and it gets complicated sometimes.
The first LNG tanker of 2026 had just moored up after being escorted to the jetty by two big Seaspan tugs. The tankers were just getting into a regular routine of coming and going after the final commissioning of the terminal in the previous summer. The megathrust earthquake struck at 9:47 a.m. One hundred and fifty kilometers to the southeast, the Pacific subduction zone fault started to slip. Over 300 years of stored energy was released as the two plates started a geological dance that would result in a three-meter sideways shift and a four-metre upward displacement of the continental plate.
In the Sarita Bay LNG Control Tower, safety manager Bill Roberts was on the radio with the mooring boss, George Scott. The final hawser had just been secured and all winches were set. As they talked, he could see George walking on the jetty just below one of the towers carrying the LNG lines. Although almost a kilometre away, in this perfect, cold, sunlit morning light, he could make out his progress up the jetty on his way to the crew station office.
The next 30 minutes would run like a jumbled tape loop in Bill Roberts’ mind for years to come. Did the tower start to shake before George fell down or was that after the seismic alarm started to beep? Or was the first thing the yell from his assistant in the coffee room?
The ship’s captain wondered later if it was the right choice but, at the time, he knew that the best chance for his ship was to get into deep water. The hawser lines may not have held anyway. Cradled in water that was 20 metres under the keel, the great vessel survived the shaking relatively unscathed. From the bridge he could see the land-based part of the terminal roiling and rocking as the quaking went on forever or for 4 minutes and 20 seconds, whichever is longer.
In the sparking sunshine, the terminal began to shimmer and shine like a giant Christmas tree full of ornaments in a windstorm. All the metal and piping, carefully constructed and assembled by the best tradesmen and techniques in the world, began a torture test that only reality can deliver. Engineers had calculated for performance under acceptably difficult conditions. The performance required now was for unacceptable conditions.
After the first minute, as the site was undulating, small pieces of the assembly started to fall and larger components began to strain the anchor points on their concrete bases. Bill Roberts was confident that his control tower would remain standing. At the time, his biggest concern was that he would not survive the debris flow of filing cabinets, desks, and various detritus that was skating across the floor. Already some of his associates had been swept up and battered into walls or down stairwells.
Bill was born ten years after the big tsunami in Port Alberni. He had grown up with the legends, the tsunami-warning-system tests, and the occasional seminars about large-scale planning around the “big one.” In 2016, there was a major disaster-planning exercise in the City and he had taken part in it.
He knew that this was the big one when the shaking did not stop. He knew that it could go on for several minutes depending on the ultimate magnitude. He remembered that the maximum severity of shaking could be felt early in the event. He also remembered that unexpected failures, even in smaller events, would begin to develop as the interminable inertial harmonics began to work their magic on large masses.
He thought about the LNG storage tanks sitting on a disc of reinforced concrete. It was resting on the estuarine sediments laid down in Sarita Bay as they poured off the great ice sheet 10,000 years ago. An array of steel piles penetrated the sediments and were driven into the bedrock below.
The tanks were full. This inventory had built up in anticipation of tanker arrivals based on the sales and ship schedules that had been settled for the next two years. The plan was that one tank would always be ready to fill the next tanker.
The background noise of the quake was erupting into a slow-motion cognition of a world coming apart. A life shaped and groomed to protect and be safe, to anticipate the worst, to be part of the prevention rather than the remediation had been the professional trajectory for Bill Roberts. This was the dream job. Big issues, big solutions. The components were formidable: big ships, big pipelines, big risks, and big rewards. A sheer opus-magnus of ingenuity and determination was brought to a distilled epitome in this facility. He could now see things happening that, although possible, had never been expected. The forces at play made it obvious to Bill that no agency could now affect the outcome.
Shortly after 9:51 the shaking stopped. There were voices, shouts, alarms ringing, and emergency generators running. There were sounds of metal tearing and groaning as elevated structures continued on their terminal path of destruction. Small smoke and vapour trails rose from various places on the site.
The captain had called for an emergency departure before the shaking stopped. The line cutters were engaged and the engines were prepared for full power but the tugs had already departed. It was a risky move and it was not clear that the ship could be manoeuvred to safety but this was the only chance for the ship he had pledged to protect – and he took it.
The ocean over the site of the subduction zone was quiet. Light winds were stirring a light chop. When the fault rupture broke along hundreds of kilometers, the uplifting continental plate kicked the underside of a mega-sized waterbed. Hundreds of cubic kilometres of water were shoved upwards in seconds. The release of energy travelled through the water column from that narrow strip of displacement. As it propagated upwards and outwards, the surface of the ocean started to rise. It was as if a twelve-foot tide had instantaneously arrived in one place. Now this water started to run downhill on itself, attaining airliner speed as the shockwave propagated outward.
The fault was 150 kilometres from Sarita Bay. Fifteen minutes after the shaking started, the first wave hit the ship broadside just as it swung out perpendicular to the inlet. Light on its lines with no ballast, the ship listed into the wave and then lifted. For a moment it hung and then started to move with the wave. The propeller was turning but with no momentum forward the rudder was useless. The ship swept over the jetty towers one by one like giant bowling pins. As the stern lodged on the west end of Santa Maria Island, the roiling water swung her bow-first toward the land. The lower parts of the site were flooding and, with the unbelievable force of nature unleashed on a point, the ship pinwheeled destruction across the terminal site in one enormous do-si-do. Bill saw it all but could not comprehend. Was it some kind of animated, black, industrial Fantasia or was it real?
Succeeding waves beat the water higher on the site and as the ship was carried onwards and upwards it passed about 100 metres south of the storage tanks. On the fourth wave, twenty-five minutes after the shaking had started, the ship was carried to its zenith and the waters started to recede. Further east, the Sarita River received the tsunami with equanimity. Water rushed in, engulfing the valley, then climbing twenty metres above sea level into the reaches of the river. In the water’s path, there came a wall of debris, logs, demolished site components, building walls, and a fluidized bed of mud, sand, and rocks. It was a roiling, black mass of high-density energy on the move.
At some point, the waters and the associated passengers stopped travelling up river and started travelling down. With increasing momentum, this became another tsunami from the land that brought as much destruction as the first. It emptied into the estuary like a wall of wet concrete, three metres thick.
Like a giant conveyor-belt to hell, this deluge struck the ship and it started to move down hill across the site. The elevation changes were not great but with gravity always willing to lend a hand, velocity times mass equals surprise. Moving slowly back to sea, the ship was grinding its way across the terminal site. As the debris-flow worked its way around and under the ship it slowly picked up speed. Nothing it hit had a hope of remaining in place.
With so much water and mudflow blanketing the site, most of the fires resulting from the shaking had been extinguished. A few wisps of smoke rose from small patches of construction debris floating by. One of the tandem, flatbed service vehicles was on fire, floating upside down. Although fire was not a problem, at the moment, it was clear that there was no capacity to fight it. The fire crew would not be able to move and all the equipment was now inside the mudflow rolling its way down to the beach.
Bill could not see any signs of life but it was possible that some of the workers were holed up in some of the stronger structures. Or, perhaps some had been able to get far enough up the slope to avoid the reach of the tsunami. With only a few precious minutes between the shaking and the arrival of the deluge there was little hope for most. The ship listed to port and slowly went abeam into the giant mass of mud and site components being carried back to the sea. With a ten-metre bulge of mud building behind it, the ship was now traveling directly toward the storage tanks. The scene disappeared into a cloud of vapour upon impact. LNG was pouring down the slope in front of the mud wave.
The tanks were gone. They just disappeared, like pop cans on the road in front of a snowplough. There were two-metre- thick chunks of high-density foam insulation drifting around the ship but the metal tanks were crushed and embedded in the debris flow.
The vapour cloud grew and the LNG fanned out over the site. When it hit the water it was carried out past the island and the demolished jetty structure that lay in twisted tangles, partly submerged.
The wind was still blowing down the inlet toward Bamfield. Instead of going to Korea, over 200,000 cubic metres of LNG was flowing into Barkley Sound and dispersing with a ten-km wind still blowing toward Bamfield, only ten km away.
Industry and regulators claimed that LNG was safe. In the event of a spill, it just evaporates. But the cool conditions slowed evaporation and, at -160°C, the LNG froze the seawater as it rolled out into Trevor channel. Wind and tidal currents worked together, moving this ice island and its deadly vapour cloud toward Bamfield.
As the cloud moved away, Bill turned his mind to rescuing survivors. Slowly they would emerge from their hiding places and communicate as best they could with their phones and radios. Normal transportation was not possible but individuals and small groups would move as they figured out how to raft, swing, slide, and slop their way to designated marshalling points above the Tsunami zone.
Meanwhile, in Bamfield, survivors were gathering at the fire halls on the east and west side of the inlet. The earthquake took its toll and then the tsunami decimated many who remained. The shaking had been violent. Grown men were taken to the ground unable to assist their wives and children. The earth shook for over four minutes. During the horrific ordeal the knowledge of what the sea would shortly bring stamped its image on every mind that had paid attention to the tsunami drills over the years.
In the haze of disbelief and jumbled comprehension that numbed survivors, the fifteen minutes between the shake and the deluge hung like a guillotine.
People were working their way to the safe zones when a distant sound assured them that the fury was indeed unleashed. It was a low rumble with high notes of breaking timber. Wind usually comes in gusts. This came like a landslide. And, indeed it was a landslide propelled by hydraulic forces. It peeled sand and topsoil off beaches and foreshore and ran it uphill, tearing through timber and overwhelming buildings in its path.
A few fires were burning unabated in the village. In this situation, structures were not on the triage list for the fire fighters. They were fully engaged giving medical aid and dealing with hazards to life and limb.
With a three knot falling tide and a ten kilometre wind, the vapour cloud reached Bamfield eighty minutes after the arrival of the first tsunami wave.
Keith Wyton lives in Bamfield where he raised his family, worked at the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre, and founded Sarita Furniture. Keith is currently the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional Director for Bamfield.