Surviving the surge: People in southwestern Newfoundland share harrowing near-death experiences

One woman was killed when a storm surge swept her from her home on Saturday, but more people escaped the same fate thanks to help from onlookers — and luck.

'I'm lucky to be alive,' said Brian Osmond

Voices of survivors: These residents narrowly escaped from Fiona

2 years ago
Duration 3:05
Residents of Newfoundland's southwest coast describe their near-death experiences with Fiona.

Brian Osmond is still in shock. His eyes alternate from welling tears to a vacant stare as he recounts the story of how he lost everything he owned while crawling for his life.

"I'm lucky to be alive," he said.

While one person was killed during Saturday's storm on Newfoundland's southwest coast, many more narrowly escaped the same fate thanks to the help of their neighbours — or just sheer luck.

Osmond, best known as "Smokey" in his hometown of Port aux Basques, is one of them. He was cooking on Saturday morning when he looked out the window and saw water pooling up around his garage.

He went to move his truck across the road but saw the water rising even further. After moving the truck to a nearby hill, the 62-year-old went back to his house.

That's when the storm surge hit.

"I went back in the door and a wave took me and I went under," he said. "I thought I was gone."

Osmond said something was on top of him, pinning him down. He thinks it was likely his patio, also swept up by the wave. He was on his hands and knees, struggling to get his head above the surface.

"I was just crawling and crawling and trying to get up. I was trying to get my head above water because water was going down my throat."

Brian Osmond, better known as 'Smokey,' lost everything he owned aside from his truck. He also nearly lost his life when a strong storm surge swept him away. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

The water started to drag him down into the cove, but Osmond somehow got control. He figures the whole ordeal lasted only a couple of minutes, but it was the scariest moment of his life. After he got his footing and ran to a neighbour's house, Osmond watched a second wave completely destroy his house. 

"It was just luck. My sister said my mother was looking after me," he said. "It wasn't my time to go."

Saved by family

Jocelyn Gillam was standing in a parking lot, a long distance from the shoreline, when she saw the water rising and an "angry" wave coming toward land.

She thought she was safe, but within seconds she was in a state of peril.

"[The wave] fooled me," Gillam said. "She came and she took me off my feet and I landed on my rear, and then it pushed me up under a Jeep."

Gillam grabbed hold of a pipe on the underside of the vehicle as the water rushed around her. She struggled to breathe and scream for help in the brief moments she could get her head above water.

Gillam's brother-in-law, Brian Farrell, said the wave picked her up and threw her into a rushing river of storm surge. 

"She just went like you'd throw a piece of paper," he said.

A chest-up short of a person wearing a purple polka dot shirt and glasses, sitting down. Behind the person is a lamp on the right and a dining room and window on the left.
Jocelyn Gillam was nearly swept away by a wave during post-tropical storm Fiona, but managed to grab on to the bottom of a vehicle before a group of people, including her brother-in-law, came to her rescue. (CBC)

While the water rushed back out to sea, Gillam found herself stuck under the vehicle, snagged by her jacket. Three neighbours rushed to her aid, with her brother-in-law ripping her coat off as the others tried to lift the Jeep to give her space.

"There was no time to wait for an ambulance," Farrell said, adding she was covered in seaweed.

They got her in the back of a car and rushed her to hospital, where she stayed overnight on Saturday.

Gillam said she will be forever grateful to the men who rescued her, especially her brother-in-law.

"There are angels that walk among our town," she said.

Cuts heal, other losses persist

Like Osmond, Wallace Kinslow is also still in shock. He spoke with reporters for five minutes about the loss of his house before someone asked about the bandage on his forehead.

"I got four stitches," he said, before making the stunning admission that he nearly drowned on Saturday.

Kinslow, who has lived in Burnt Islands for 50 years, was at his house when he heard his neighbour calling out: "Wallace, the breaker is coming in!"

Burnt Islands town councillor Wallace Kinslow has been there for 50 years and is devastated to see Fiona's impact on his hometown. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

The 67-year-old stepped outside and was caught in the storm surge, pulled down by its undertow and dragged toward the ocean. It carried him down the road, before he smacked into a guard rail at the edge of an embankment.

"I almost lost me life," Kinslow said. "I would have been gone if I didn't grab that guard rail. Other than that, I would have been gone."

While the four stitches will heal in a few days, the loss of his home is going to haunt Kinslow for a long time. He didn't have home insurance, and said many other people in the community didn't either. Even if they did, they might not be covered due to damage from the storm surge.

Carried by a wave

Spencer Short, who lives in Port aux Basques, got a call around 7 a.m. on Saturday from his boss, who owned a two-storey apartment building. The storm surge was getting close, and he wanted the two residents to evacuate. 

When Short arrived at the apartment building, it had already been hit with a massive wave that destroyed the bottom floor and carried the top floor about 80 feet away  — with two tenants still inside.

"I figured well, they were gone. There's no way anybody survived that," he said.

Still, Short sprung into action.

"It was just a beeline to go see where they were to, see what was going on," he said.

He clambered over piles of rubble created by the storm surge. Short, along with first responders who had arrived on scene, kicked the door in and found the terrified tenants, who were then transported to hospital.

Short said the experience — and the storm's aftermath — has been unreal.

"Seeing the devastation is unlike anything I've seen before," he said.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Malone Mullin, Chris O'Neill-Yates, Terry Roberts and The Current