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Remember Rachel Webber, Girl of Johnsons Landing

When she died this summer in a landslide, along with her sister and father, she left behind a close circle of friends. How they coped, in their words.

By Bill Metcalfe 17 Sep 2012 | TheTyee.ca

Bill Metcalfe is a radio and print journalist based in Nelson, B.C. Find his previous Tyee stories here.

In July 2012, Val Webber and his daughters Rachel, 17, and Diana, 22, died in a landslide that devastated the remote community of Johnsons Landing.

It was two weeks until searchers found Rachel's body, and for much of that time no one knew for sure if she was alive or dead. Her teenage friends experienced this with a poignant mix of group support and careening emotions, along with an astounding maturity and the kind of self-sufficiency their independent-minded parents settled in this remote area to teach them.

In this interview, we meet five of Rachel Webber's close friends: Zoei Thibault, Annora Clapp, Tenise Trueman, and Emily Smith, all age 17, and Devon Leathwood, 20, talking about the death of their friend and how they dealt with it.

The discussion took place in a suite in Kaslo that Rachel Webber and Zoei Thibault had shared as roommates for a few months before Rachel's death. The date was August 27, about seven weeks after the slide. All five girls were about to move away in the next few days, some to attend university, others to travel.

They talked about the first few days after the slide.

Zoei: It was the worst feeling of my life.

Devon: I have it separated into like day one, day two, day three....

Tenise: It's a blur for me.

Devon: Day one we were all here and there was a lot of misinformation; a lot of, "We found them. No we didn't."

Zoei: That happened three or four times.

Devon: We got that from the media or people on the street. A lot of checking the news updates, a lot of people being really quiet in a room and every five minutes someone gravitating toward the computer and seeing what is happening. That first night was a really hopeful night.

Zoei: It was just annoying because we checked the news but we were more informed than they were, so most of the stuff you read, you know it is just false, and you don't know what you can believe.

Tenise: I was at work when it happened. I called my mom and she told me Rachel's house was hit and she didn't know how bad it was, and I came here to find Zoei and a few people were here, and there was a false sense of relief.

Devon: That first day was the worst for that. Tenise and me and two other friends slept in the park that night and it was two in the morning and we got the text message. Like the news said 'They found the girls.'

Annora: Emily and I were together and Hunter (a friend) was with us on the East Shore on the first night. Hannah (another friend) posted on Rachel's (Facebook) wall, "We just heard that you guys were found safe, and I am so happy." They were trying to sleep but I was still awake and on the computer and so I was like, "Guys, come read this!" We 100 per cent believed it, and you know, I remember looking in the mirror and Emily is leaning her head on my head, Hunter is leaning on Emily, and the three of us were like, "OK." But the next day it all came apart again.

Tenise: Then it was day 2 and we all went to Emily's house up at the lake, I don't know how many.

Devon: Thirty of us.

Tenise: We made food, watched the news all day.

Devon: Played a lot of music. Apples to Apples, that happened for a while. A lot of people showered (laughter). Emily's mom was finally like, "Do you want to shower?" and we were all like, "Yes! So much!" We were all in Emily's house, and we were all there all night. She has got a basement and it was covered in bodies. A bunch of us slept downstairs, sleeping bags on the floor and probably 20 kids on the same floor.

Tenise: The feeling there, it changed a lot. There were so many phases. You would go downstairs and I would be playing music with Kevin and Stephen, and it would be so hard because you would start laughing about something and you would walk into another room and someone would be bawling their eyes out.

Zoei: It was pretty much shift work, you know? When you were not in hysterics you were taking care of somebody else that was, then switch roles.

Tenise: Everyone goes through their cycles.

Devon: And there is a point where there is just nothing. The only time we were on the same level was hourly, when everybody was in the same room to watch the news. We all just sat there and stared and everybody was feeling the same emotions, especially like when they said the wrong name on the news and at the same time we would all freak out, or the wrong information.

Zoei: They did on multiple occasions -- "17-year-old Rachel Webber" and then show a picture of Diana or something awful like that.

Tenise: One of the hardest things for me... I didn't really allow myself to freak out until we were watching the different news updates. I was with Emily and hearing Lynn's voice for the first time (Rachel and Diana's mother who lives in Florida, on the phone from there). That was when I completely lost it. That was so hard, because that was the clip they kept playing on the news. That was the worst.

Zoei: That was when she was in Florida and she didn't know what was going on, she said something like, "Somebody give me a shovel."

Devon: It was really unfortunate because there was a small portion of the interview when she was being extremely irrational, and obviously with good reason, but that was the only part of it they played.

Zoei: Over. And over. And over.

Annora: Because she was keeping it together for the first while, but it is that sensationalist media thing, it seemed like, "What is going to make interesting news? The part where the mother is freaking out."

Zoei: I don't know what happened to you guys when you walked down the streets but the day of the slide, and a couple of days after, there were people who just walked up and they offered their houses to stay at, and food, they offered everything.

Zoei: People asking how you are surviving.

Devon: I remember one thing I said when people would say, "How are you holding up?" My answer would be, "We are holding each other up because there is nothing else...." I have dealt with something similar to this. Three years ago one of my best friends committed suicide. I was 17 then and all of us were 17 and were about to (graduate), and we all dealt with it in a really bad way, we all just got together and drank. I am so proud of all my friends here now and how we handled this, because we all got together and we all supported each other, no drugs or alcohol, and people were making sure we were eating food and trying to sleep and despite the awfulness of it, it was such a healthy and productive way of grieving.

Young people from the communities of Johnsons Landing and Argenta go to high school in Kaslo, population about 1,000, about an hour's drive away. Many older students from those communities move to Kaslo to go to high school, so the young people of the three communities are actually one community.

Tenise and Emily have been best friends since they were babies. They grew up in Argenta and went to elementary school with Rachel Webber.

Tenise: The kids that lived there were your friends. You had no choice.

Emily: You grew up with them and they became your family. Everybody in the community was your family, basically.

Tenise: I think Emily and I were so lucky that we found each other like that.

Emily: That we actually got along.

Tenise: It was such a strange, cosmic thing. She is five weeks older than me, so we have been friends since we were a few weeks old. It is definitely a unique place to grow up and it certainly shaped who I am today. Whenever I meet people from bigger places they always ask, "What do you do out there, how do you spend your time?" I think that one of the most special things about it is, no, you can't go to the movies whenever you feel like it, there are a lot of things you can't do, but you have to get creative. That's what happened to us.

Devon and Zoei grew up in Kaslo. Annora moved there from another nearby rural area, the East Shore, in Grade 7. All five went to high school together in Kaslo.

Devon: I am second generation here. My best friend, her father and my father, were in the same grade in the same school here. It is a really unique bond, even in other small communities in the Kootenays and in B.C. I have never found a place like it, with the same sense of helpfulness and community -- and sometimes unwanted help. (Everyone laughs.)

Devon: Everyone is trying to look out for your best interests.

Zoei: I find it funny when people ask what we do here because I look at a city and I think, "What do you do there? It costs so much money."

Devon: When I live in Vancouver all I do is go to the park and play guitar and everyone thinks I am so weird.

Tenise: I went home a while ago for the first time in two weeks to Argenta (from Kaslo) and I was bringing with me people who had never seen it before, and we just got out of the car and they were saying, "My gosh this is amazing, this is beautiful," and it was so emotional for me because I was scared to leave it after they talked about it like that. I realized I live in an amazing place and I am moving in a week.

Rachel Webber was born in Florida and moved to Johnsons Landing when she was three. When Rachel was seven, she and her sister Diana moved back to Florida after their parents' divorce. Their father, Valentine Webber, stayed in Johnsons Landing in the house that was eventually destroyed by the slide.

In their teen years the Webber girls came north and visited their father more and more often and ended up finishing high school in Kaslo. The girls say their friend Rachel was part of the rural bond they describe.

Devon: Absolutely.

Tenise: They loved Johnsons Landing so much. So much.

Devon: I have never met people who have the kind of love for a place, never. They embodied it. They talked about it all the time.

Zoei: And they chose it over most things too. You would be like, "Come hang out and party tonight." They'd be like, "No, I'm going home to The Landing. Watching X-Files. Listening to Bob Dylan."

Four days after the slide, searchers found the body of Val Webber. The girls learned about that at a candlelight vigil organized by Annora, when about 200 people gathered in the park in Kaslo.

Annora: When I started organizing the vigil it was like we need to feel like we are doing something, because it was all like this feeling of being useless.... At the vigil we heard that they had found Val's body and we went up to the CBC camera people, and that woman (one of the crew members) had a very blunt way of speaking.

Devon: She asked us if we wanted any information, and we said yes, and she said they found him late this afternoon in the foundation of the home, which had been destroyed, and it has now been considered a recovery operation as opposed to a rescue mission. She said they found most of him, and they are going to look for the rest of him. She said they are going to continue to search for the girls and for the rest of him tomorrow.

Annora: That kind of graphic information you don't need to talk to people about. When she was speaking to me I didn't absorb that. I was like a zombie, like "You need to tell me what she just said." After, we just sang Beatles songs. We all had candles and we were all in a huge circle in the park. Yellow Submarine. Why did we have to sing Yellow Submarine?

Tenise: I feel it was awkward for people who didn't know every single word, people looking around awkwardly.

Annora: And that was when I stood up and was like, "Just so you know," I forget how I put it, but it was so bad, "We are probably going to stay here all night in the park singing Beatles songs, so you guys..."

Devon: "You're free to go!" (Laughter.)

Why the Beatles? All five of these girls, and the Webber girls, are big fans of music from the sixties and seventies, and they know a lot about it.

Devon: Rachel and Diana knew more about sixties and seventies music than...

Annora: ...than people who lived through the sixties and seventies.

In the weeks following the slide, big-city TV cameras and reporters descended on Kaslo and Johnsons Landing and gave these teenagers some lessons in media relations. Their experience was mixed -- they met some reporters that were sensitive and kind, but a few negative experiences made a strong impression on them.

Devon: I have a huge gripe with (a certain TV cameraman). I am like so unbelievably appalled with the way we were treated. We had an interview with him during those first days, the day of the vigil. We said something inappropriate and started laughing -- you know those very few moments when you can genuinely laugh. Part of the process is hysterical laughter, and he looked at us and said, "You really need to look sad for this."

Zoei: "Can you look sad? We need a shot of you looking sad, really sad."

Devon: "You can't laugh."

Zoei: The fact that he had the nerve to say that? And then we said, "No we can't look sad, because we can't control how we feel right now." He said, "I understand it has been a really shitty couple of days." And then I said, "Can you say shit on TV?" Then I look right into the camera and I go, "Shit."

Devon: It was the most insensitive thing. Look sad, I have looked sad for the last couple days.

Zoei: The thing that bothered me most was they were vicious about it. They didn't treat you....

Devon: Laura and I had the job at the vigil of scaring away the reporters.

Annora: Camera smackers!

Devon: Originally we agreed (to media being at the vigil) and we didn't say anything to the reporters but if they showed up, people should see how hopeful we are and what a community we are, but then we found out they found Val's body and when that was happening they were trying to film us.

Annora: And people were sobbing.

Devon: And that one guy trying to take pictures, he was from the community.

Annora: Yeah, my grandmother went and took him down.

Devon: We did go up to people and say, "You just saw what happened, we just got the news (about Val Webber), and you know this is an extraordinarily private moment, for all of us, can you please leave?" And I made sure that we said on camera, "We do not want this on TV. We are not giving you our permission."

Tenise: We had different experiences with different individuals. They are people. I had a good experience with one reporter. I walked by the day after, and I was in my I-can't-stop-shaking phase, and I just was like, "Do you know anything?" and he didn't, and he was one of the people that was easy to talk to. He was really great, called me every few hours when they were doing the grid searches. He emailed me a week after when we heard they had found Rachel, just making sure I was OK.

The slide occurred on July 12. Searchers found Val Webber's and Diana Webber's bodies on July 15 and 16. Then the search was called off, and later started up again. Rachel's body was found on July 25.

Devon: Other than the four days of not knowing, the absolute worst part was when they found Val and Diana and decided to stop the search. It was like the most...

Zoei: I was mad. It was enraging.

Tenise: I went to talk to one of our teachers a few days after the slide when I had accepted they had not found Rachel. One of the things I said was it doesn't really make a difference to me whether or not they find her because I already know, so for me it wasn't that they gave up. I understand why it upset others.

Rachel Webber was a grade behind most of her friends, about to start Grade 12. The girls say Rachel's death has brought everyone in the high school together in a new way.

Annora: With girls from Rachel's grade, well I didn't have anything against them really, but I did not know them, and it was like none of that mattered anymore. If there was someone who walked into a room and it was somebody who had annoyed you for the last four years of your life, you don't care, you give them a hug anyway, because they need it as much as you do. You have to get over yourself and just be able to give someone the support they need.

Emily: There were people there who did not know Rachel and Diana, they weren't close to them, and they would come up and try and comfort you.

Devon: Megan was like our freaking rock.

Annora: She didn't know any of us. She was in our grad class and we liked her but we were not close with her.

Devon: She just showed up and cried with us and made us tea.

Zoei: She fixed so much.

Annora: Gave us rides, tried to carry things down the stairs even when she was on crutches, she was totally incorrigible.

Devon: That is just one example... it doesn't matter if you didn't know them, you don't want to see your friends this upset. Any human being, whether we appreciate them or not, would be a loss in this community, you know what I mean, it would be a void. It is not like a big city where not many people would notice. It is a large, large void no matter who it is.

The void at the high school in this case was especially large because Rachel Webber was a remarkable person by any standards. Here are several excerpts from Rachel's eulogy written by Emily and Tenise:

When Rachel moved back here, the structure of our high school completely changed. She did something that we personally have never seen before. She built relationships with so many different people and connected the entire high school. Rachel's presence was so strong that we take comfort in knowing that wherever we go, and whatever we do, we know exactly what she would say and whether or not she would approve of our decisions....

Rachel's honesty was always something to be relied upon. She was brutally truthful, regardless of whether or not the truth was desired. This is something everyone who met her learned quickly, and it was something that was admired within her, because it is rare to find someone so beautifully sincere....

Rachel loved and hated more deeply than anyone we have ever met. Her passion was undeniable and unavoidable. She was the first to voice an opinion or defend her point of view. Rachel was many things, one of which was not tolerant. She had very high standards for friendships, but she made certain that we all met and exceeded expectations. Rachel was not one to hide her emotions. We saw it all: intensity, elation, ferocity, composure, sophistication, and vulnerability....

While she was cynical, many of her decisions were influenced by her hopeless romantic disposition. This was no doubt generated from her relationship with film, which was above and beyond incessant devotion. She was always in support of a Lord of the Rings marathon or a midday screening of Almost Famous or Bridget Jones's Diary. One of her greatest passions was educating her friends on film, music, and literature....

In the midst of all this were the girls' parents, many of whom knew them all and knew the Webber family.

Devon: I feel bad for the parents.

Annora: We were in a lot of denial, all of us, clearly.

Devon: I call it hope.

Tenise: My mom was like, "You better prepare yourself now." We were prepared but we could not accept it.

Devon: My parents did the same thing, (saying) "There is no way" (they will survive), and we're like, "Thanks." But I feel really bad for the parents because they don't know what to do because we are their babies and with almost every single person I talked to, parents are the least comforting people to be around because they are treating you like a child, and I feel bad for them because they want so badly to help you but all of us were like, "Please, we just need each other right now. We just want each other." Because we all know what the other needs. So I think it was frustrating for our parents because almost all of us were pushing them away.

Tenise: Friday, the day after the slide, my mom, who knew Rachel all her life too, my Mom and I kind of had a talk, and we in our way accepted what had happened because we were pretty sure.

Emily: My mom sat us down at some point too and said, "Prepare yourself."

Devon: It got to a point where that was what we were all hoping for in a way.

Zoei: As awful as it is, it's true.

Devon: After four days, you know, that was like the one time I broke down and literally sat on Emily's floor for four hours and couldn't get up, was just imagining if they were in pain or scared. You would be so scared, and it just got to a point where I just hope they are not... not afraid any more.

Tenise: That was after we had watched the video of the second slide.

Devon: God that was the worst.

Tenise: And just seeing the magnitude and seeing...

Emily: And that was a smaller version of it, so...

Zoei: I remember driving up the road and stopping across from Johnsons Landing and seeing the slide. It was a powerful moment, having physical evidence.

Devon: Totally, and being like, they are in there, under that. Underneath it.

Six weeks after the slide, all five girls are packing, getting ready to leave. Where are they now, emotionally?

Zoei: I can't fully comprehend what has happened but I have come to terms with never being able to fully understand and accept.

Emily: Right after it happened I didn't really feel what I wanted to feel, there was not enough time. Then after, three weeks later, I started to miss her. Now I can't get that back but at the same time actually feeling something and actually knowing what I was feeling was also helpful. It was like, "OK, now I can learn to get over it."

Devon: We all have done our own things to accept. Zoei and I both got a tattoo -- that was one of the most therapeutic things I have ever done. Mine says, "Only love can break your heart." I had been carrying around this button, something to do with Rachel, and I had lost it. So then I really lost it. I couldn't breathe, I can't find this button, my life is going to end, and so I was like, "I need to get a tattoo, I can't lose that." Things are never OK but they get better.

Zoei: One of the most powerful post event experiences I have had is a bunch of people telling me stories about how they felt like she is still around. She had visited them in dreams or there would just be times, walking down the street, there would be a flash of Rachel, right? I mean, I wanted to experience that for a long time. I can picture her walking down those stairs wearing my clothes, admiring them in the mirror because they look so good, but it was always minor stuff and then I woke up one morning and it was like she was sitting on the edge of my bed waiting for me to wake up, and it was a powerful moment. It is not like she is gone. She is still hanging out, we just can't be with her.

Tenise: I took Zee and Tasha to Sunny Bluffs where Rachel and I lived for five months this winter and it was hard because going in there it was so empty because none of our stuff was there, and it was just too empty, so it was hard. I was expecting to have this emotional reaction, like you know, lying on the bed she slept in and standing in the kitchen we made food in, and yet there was just nothing, and it was one of the saddest things for me.

Emily: Tenise and I were talking a little, you know, a while after the slide about how this made us realize our own mortality. You graduate, you come out of high school and you are invincible, the world is at your feet.

Tenise: We just, especially Annora and I, we just don't think twice about things, we just go and jump off...

Annora: Cliffs.

Tenise: Cliffs, and we don't ever think something bad could go wrong.

Annora: It doesn't occur to us to worry.

Emily: I do that for them.

Annora: She does, that's Emily's job.

Zoei: I am beginning to move out of this space now. I am gone, I am moving, and it's really sad to leave this space, because one of the hardest parts was when there was the celebration of life up in Argenta, a bunch of Diana's friends came and collected stuff to have up there to decorate the space and they took down a lot of the posters and stuff here, and that made me upset because Rachel and I had spent days discussing in depth the placement of the posters and the exact height they have to be to be appreciated to their fullest potential, and like just packing up something you put so much effort into.

Emily: The fact that The Landing is destroyed is really difficult because where you go to remember someone is the place that they love, and the fact that (their house at) The Landing is not there....

Zoei: Yeah, this apartment is pretty much what I have left of The Landing. If I could, I would take this whole little suite and drag it along with me, everywhere.

At the end of our discussion, the girls took a moment to reflect on the last hour and a half.

Zoei: I was not enthusiastic to talk about it, but it has helped wrap up a lot of loose ends.

Emily: I like to talk about it. It's therapeutic.

Annora: At this point we are in a place where you don't want the slide to be brought up all the time, but you want them to be brought up, because they are part of us.

Zoei: It was healthy to reflect on the situation as a whole, every aspect of it. So I have appreciated it.

Devon: I know it is a horrible thing to reflect on, but it is almost like it was meant that they were to be remembered as these intelligent, firecracker, beautiful young women, full of life.

Zoei: Rachel had this book that was full of quotes based around the idea that you should live in the moment, you know, dream as if you will live forever, live as if you'll die today kind of things. She took all of those, like don't be afraid to be yourself, like just live the life....

Emily: To thine own self be true. She was such a romantic.

Tenise: Such a romantic.

Emily: Such a romantic.

This interview has been condensed and edited.  [Tyee]

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