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Texas couple who survived Fiona describe building collapsing with them still inside

On that Saturday morning, the pair awoke to a commotion: people shouting, yelling up at the couple to evacuate. "I opened the window and [a man] said, get out, get out now while you can."

Brenda and Tim Holland narrowly avoided the surge from 2nd-floor Airbnb

A broken building sits amid a pile of rubble
This apartment building in Port aux Basques was partially demolished by a storm surge by post-tropical storm Fiona last month. Two occupants escaped from the ruins with their lives. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

Brenda Holland felt her stomach lurch, the way it would if she'd come to a sudden stop in her car.

Brenda and her husband, Tim, weren't driving that morning, though. They were on the second floor of a Port aux Basques apartment that had just been decimated by a storm surge — the same one that destroyed dozens of homes in the town, on Newfoundland's west coast, last month.

The couple, visiting Newfoundland from Texas, had driven into town on Friday to weather the storm before getting on the ferry. 

"We bought all kinds of food. We were planning on just hunkering down in the apartment until the storm passed," Brenda said this week from her home in Texas.

"We surveyed the building and looked where the water was, and where the building was, and because there is this pretty large cove right in front of the building with … a 20-foot cliff, we thought, 'Well, that cove is going to break any kind of surge.' 

"We thought we were going to be fine."

A couple smile in a selfie next to a picture of a man walking on a bridge
Brenda and Tim Holland had spent a week traversing Newfoundland before arriving in Port aux Basques. (Submitted by Brenda Holland)

But the swollen sea still managed to take out the entire bottom floor of that apartment building, sending it sliding inland with the Hollands still inside.

On that Saturday morning, Brenda recalled, the pair awoke to a commotion: people shouting, yelling up at the couple to evacuate. "I opened the window and [a man] said, 'Get out, get out now while you can,'" she said.

The couple haphazardly threw their clothes into suitcases, wondering what to do. All the emergency warnings had told them to shelter in place, to remain inside whenever possible.

Before they could make a decision, the wave hit.

"All of a sudden the building collapsed," she said. 

"We didn't really understand what happened at first … because the way the building collapsed, the second floor basically slid almost straight forward."

The furniture shifted slightly around them, and the lights went out, but neither knew what had happened.

"It was just kind of like being in a car that put the brakes on a little bit fast, but not slamming them on," Brenda said from her home in Texas, shifting forward in her seat to illustrate the feeling.

A couple smile in a selfie
The couple says the destruction from Fiona was unlike anything they've experienced. (Submitted by Brenda Holland)

It wasn't until rescuers came to their door that they realized their second-floor unit was now only five feet from the ground. They jumped out, fleeing the shore, leaving everything behind.

Originally from the Chicago area, the couple had survived tornadoes. They didn't compare.

"The destruction of a hurricane is so much worse," Brenda said.

They spent the ensuing days making friends for life, as Brenda put it, joining cleanup crews around Port aux Basques. A woman brought them suitcases filled with donated clothes. They took their meals at the Lions Club, then the Salvation Army, chatting with the volunteers. One local lent Brenda her car one day. Nearly a week later, the two flew home.

"I'm still digesting it," Brenda says slowly, sitting in her home office, Tim behind her nodding.

"I feel like it has really changed my perspective on so many things, like what's important and what's not important. And I really feel a renewed sense that people are good. The majority of mankind are good people. At least in Newfoundland," she said.

"It wasn't like the hurricane hit a town. It hit a family."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Malone Mullin is a reporter in St. John's who previously worked in Vancouver and Toronto. News tip? Reach her at malone.mullin@cbc.ca.

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