Car towing or cliff climbing?
It was the tow to end all tows: Slick rocks, howling winds, a smashed car dangling over the edge of a cliff and an entire city watching with rapt attention as a handful of guys in orange vests tried to put it right.
On Sunday morning, the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary responded to reports of a “suspicious vehicle” that had broken through a barricade at Signal Hill, a national historic site overlooking the city of St. John’s, N.L.
A crumpled Toyota Echo was lodged on the edge of a 300-metre rock face and a few metres away lay the 20-year-old female driver who had been thrown clear of the wreck.
The driver is expected to survive and investigators are saying there was “nothing sinister or criminal at play” about the unusual crash. “We’re not looking at an unfortunate accident where someone drove off the cliff accidentally,” said Const. Geoffrey Higdon with the RNC.
The National Post’s Tristin Hopper asked Bob Rice, maintenance manager for Avalon Towing — and the first tow-truck worker on scene — about how one gets a compact car off a cliff.
Q Where does this rank in terms of your career highlights in towing?
A It’s in the top four or five. You get vehicles out in bodies of water. Vehicles dangling over a wall. That kind of thing. The whole thing about this is, if this had been down a side road, it wouldn’t have gotten the same kind of attention.
Q Set the scene. What was the situation at Signal Hill?
A We had terrific winds: 80, 90 kilometres per hour that are just blowing you around and making you lose your balance. We couldn’t hear anything. Everything we had to do we had to do with hand signals. We have a vehicle that’s on the side of a cliff, and probably another 800 or 900 feet below that there’s a very busy walking trail. We’re dealing with a national historic site. and we have gasoline, transmission fluid and motor oil in the vehicle. If we rupture any of those, then we might have an environmental problem.
Q Walk me through the process to get this car out.
A I put my harness on and I clip on to a member of the (St. John’s fire department high-angle rescue team). We rappel down the cliff and I’m dragging a cable and chain with me. Then (the firefighter) ties himself off and I get under the vehicle and get a winch around the axle — which is not a real secure point. Within the first 50 feet it was still possible it could fall until we could get a second line onto a body mount. We brought it up very, very slowly. If we had to lose this vehicle, it would have been a vertical fall another 900 to 1,000 feet onto a busy walking trail — and then it would have been very difficult to get it out from there. We also had a truck right on the edge of the cliff and another one tethered onto it. The worst thing that could have happened, it could have all come down the hill like in one of those YouTube videos.
Q You work in a profession where you often encounter the public at their surliest. Is this one of those rare instances where you get to be a hero?
A We do roadside assistance, so people are mad because their vehicle doesn’t start or the tire’s flat and now they’re late. And if we have to impound a car, we’re the worst person in the world then; they don’t want to give you the keys. There’s verbal abuse. But from time to time, you do get people saying, “Well, we’re some glad you’re here.” But it doesn’t happen too often.
Q Thus, mere hours after this feat of towing prowess cheered by hundreds, is it entirely possible that, as we speak, somebody in St. John’s is back to cursing at an Avalon Towing worker?
This interview has been edited and condensed for brevity.