Tsunamis are meant to happen elsewhere. Out beyond the Atlantic pale and confined to the Pacific ring of fire. Strictly the preserve of myth, rumour, and distant voices. It always had been, until 1929.
The coastal steamer the S.S. Portia sailed her usual run towards the southern end of the Burin peninsula, but unlike her namesake from the Merchant of Venice, for her, there would be more than three caskets to choose from.
November 21st in the weak light of early day, the Portia rounded the point on her way to Burin Harbour. For Captain Westbury Kean, it had been a normal day on the wet; tea, biscuits, and a game of 45s. He, however, saw it first, the impossible thing, the surrealist’s spectre of melted clocks and of life fragmented to a new understanding. Captain Kean saw a store floating past his ship on its way out to sea.
Only the chugging pulse of the steam engine reassured the crew that they were in fact awake, as a house tipped at a drunken angle, windows and doors closed, also floated past their held breath and disbelief. The hot prickles of dawning horror sharpened the clenched tension as the Portia steamed past 9 buildings, on her way to a harbour which no longer existed.
It must have been a cruel flashback, with the Great War only eleven years removed. They described the scene as a warzone after the heaviest possible shelling. At that moment the world still had no idea anything had happened.
November 18th, three days before the Portia spilled light into a sleeping world, the people of the Burin were having supper while the solid ground shook, sickeningly turning to watery clay, and back to stone. At 5:02 pm, an earthquake measuring 7.2 on the Richter scale struck 250 kilometers off the coast of Newfoundland. After 5 minutes of ground tremors and aftershocks, all went quiet. The people of the Burin had two and a half hours remaining, they just didn’t know it yet.
The earthquake had set three enormous walls of water in motion. A tsunami moving at 140 km/h was racing towards Newfoundland.
The curious thing about a tsunami is that it takes away water a few moments before it makes landfall. If it hadn’t been a calm night, it’s easy to think that no one would have noticed the little harbours being sucked dry. Boats which had been anchored in as many as 20 feet of water hit ground and fell onto their sides. This would be the only warning anyone would get. Some did notice, some saw the rising walls of water surging up the long narrow bays and were able to flee to higher ground, some were not so lucky.
The bays of Port au Bras, St. Lawrence, and Taylor’s Bay saw the water rise as high as a 9 storey building, and hit the shore still travelling at 40km/h. This is violence which is difficult to conceive; in only 30 minutes, over 40 villages were ransacked, some completely destroyed. The water destroyed most everything in its path. Almost fantastically, some structures detached from their foundations, floated free, and survived. In one case, a general store was carried inland more than 60 meters before coming to rest in a meadow with all of its stock intact and on the shelves.
It took a further 2 hours for the water levels to return to normal, during which time people and things were swept out to sea. Desperate rescues were launched in whatever craft had survived, for people clinging to debris or trapped inside floating houses. In one house, a sleeping baby was rescued on a second storey, with the family having all drowned on the first.
There was no way to send for help, the overland telegraph lines having been damaged in a storm a few days earlier and the earthquake having severed 12 transatlantic cables to Europe and North America. No one outside the Burin peninsula knew anything had happened until the S.S Portia steamed into port three days later.
The Portia was equipped with a wireless and sent a message to St. John’s. The S.S. Meigle was quickly loaded with provisions, nurses, and doctors, and arrived the next day.
The tsunami of 1929 took the lives of 28 people. This is still the largest documented loss of life due to an earthquake-related event in Canadian history.
(Re-imagining based on real events. Sources: Heritage NF and Natural Resources Canada)