Penticton Fire Chief Larry Watkinson and his adorable sidekick, Sam the disaster dog, have returned home after roughly a week assisting in search and rescue efforts in the Bahamas, which were recently decimated by Hurricane Dorian. (Jordyn Thomson - Western News)

Penticton Fire Chief Larry Watkinson and his adorable sidekick, Sam the disaster dog, have returned home after roughly a week assisting in search and rescue efforts in the Bahamas, which were recently decimated by Hurricane Dorian. (Jordyn Thomson - Western News)

‘It’s almost surreal’: B.C. fire chief, sidekick Sammy recap rescue mission in Bahamas

Chief Larry Watkinson and Sam the disaster dog spent 8 days assisting a search and rescue team

After roughly a week in the Bahamas, scouring the wreckage left behind Hurricane Dorian in 40 degree heat, Penticton Fire Chief Larry Watkinson and his adorable sidekick, Sam the disaster dog, are back in Canada.

Watkinson joined a team of firefighters from Burnaby, as part of an urban search and rescue team, deployment to Great Abaco, part of the Abaco Islands in the Bahamas, from Sept. 7 to 15. The region was hit by the Category 5 hurricane a week prior, and Watkinson said the destruction left in Dorian’s wake was unimaginable.

“It’s like imagining a dishwasher with a lawn mower on top, and when the water washes away it just leaves all the debris in there,” said Watkinson.

READ MORE: Penticton fire chief, disaster dog working in ‘extreme conditions’ in Bahamas

He said it took about 24 hours for the team to reach their assignment, flying commercially from Vancouver to New York to Nassau. From there, they took a private charter to the island where they needed another day to get themselves settled.

“It took us a day to get established logistically — where do we sleep, where do we eat, how do we get water. And transportation, because we didn’t have any and all of the vehicles are wrecked there,” said Watkinson. “So we had to find vehicles with keys in them and (commandeer) them so we can move around the island.”

Watkinson said he and Sam are self-sufficient in that they just take two cases of supplies with them on deployment and do not need to deplete resources. He said because of the destruction, there were very little places to find shade on the island, so the team would use whatever they could to get the search dogs out of the intense tropical heat.

As part of the search and rescue team, Watkinson and Sam were deployed to the Mudd, “a shanti town comprised of thousands of people that basically lived in shacks” near the core of Great Abaco. Sam was tasked with locating cadavers in the wreckage as Watkinson and others would grid search the entire area to ensure they didn’t miss anything.

READ MORE: Penticton fire chief and disaster dog return from hurricane-ravaged Bahamas

“The hurricane sat over this area for about two days at Category 5. So total destruction, massive debris piles of boats, seacans, cars and construction debris just basically mashed together,” said Watkinson. “We pride ourselves on getting to scenes of disaster as quickly as we can, because Sam is very good at finding a live scent. He loves the work and he gets excited about it.

“But in a lot of cases, just purely because of distance, it takes a while to get to these locations and under those conditions it’s hard to find live victims.”

Watkinson did note that the team did manage to locate three Canadians who had not checked in with the Canadian Consulate, so they were able to provide them with supplies and communication back home. He said the work “can be dark” but he chose to focus on the positives of the work he was doing.

“It can be dark work but the thing about it is that as a team, we rely on each other and have great camaraderie, and Sam and I go on these deployments to bring closure to those that have missing victims,” said Watkinson. “But we feel great about what we do. Sometimes you can feel the weight of the work, but the successes are great accomplishments too. Sometimes even the smallest success can be very rewarding.”

READ MORE: ‘Tragic scene’: Penticton fire chief, dog Sammy scour Hurricane Dorian wreckage in Bahamas

Watkinson said he wasn’t sure who was more tired after they returned, he or his furry companion, but said he will never forget the feeling of returning home to Penticton and seeing the beauty of the community.

“We both crawled into bed and slept for a half a day when we got home. We traveled right from the Vancouver Airport to Penticton and I remember just the moment of coming down the stretch from Trout Creek into Penticton and watching the lights of the city and the first-class community that we live in,” said Watkinson. “Reflecting back on where I was for a week, it’s almost surreal to be in this kind of environment where buildings are upright, cars aren’t destroyed and powerlines aren’t snapped.

“We have to recognize that we live in a great place and a beautiful city and to remember to look after each other. That’s something I’ve come home with and have been reflecting on every day.”

To report a typo, email: editor@pentictonwesternnews.com.

Jordyn Thomson | Reporter
JordynThomson 
Send Jordyn Thomson an email.
Like the Western News on Facebook.
Follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Visitors relax at the natural hot springs located within Maquinna Marine Provincial Park. (tofinohiking.com photo)
Maquinna Marine Provincial Park boardwalk project on track

“The walk down the two-kilometre boardwalk to the springs itself is by far one of the most incredible experiences.”

WILDLIFE TREE: Tofino Poet Laureate Christine Lowther stands next to a giant cedar tree on District Lot 114, the site of Tofino’s controversial affordable housing project. The tree was pinned with an official Ministry of Forests yellow wildlife tree sign to educate fallers that the tree needs to be left standing for food, shelter and nesting. (Nora O’Malley photo)
Tofino author Christine Lowther calling for poetry about trees

“I’m thrilled to be of service to trees through poetry.”

Tofino will elect a new mayor and two new councillors on March 6. (Westerly file photo)
Tofino’s mayoralty candidates lay out key differences

Tofino will elect a new mayor and two new councillors on March 6.

FILE – A COVID-19 vaccine being prepared. (Olivia Sullivan/Sound Publishing)
B.C. seniors 80 years and older to get COVID vaccine details over next 2 weeks: Henry

Province is expanding vaccine workforce as officials ramp up age-based rollout

Clockwise from top right, chamber executive director Jen Dart moderated a Zoom-based forum last week where Tofino’s mayoralty candidates J.J. Belanger, Andrea McQuade and Dan Law made their pitch to lead their community. (Screenshot)
WATCH: Tofino mayoralty candidates face off at forum

Town to elect new mayor and two new councillors on March 6.

Abbotsford’s Kris Collins turned to TikTok out of boredom when the provincial COVID-19 lockdown began in March 2020. She now has over 23 million followers on the video app. Photo: Submitted
Internet famous: Abbotsford’s Kris Collins is a TikTok comedy queen

Collins has found surprise stardom alone with a phone

BC Ferries experienced heavy traffic on Feb. 27 following cancellations the day before due to strong winds and adverse weather. (Black Press Media file photo)
BC Ferries sailings fill up quickly after Friday cancellations due to high winds

Waits expected on Swartz Bay-Tsawwassen route, Horseshoe Bay-Departure Bay route

Nanaimo children’s author and illustrator Lindsay Ford’s latest book is ‘Science Girl.’ (Photo courtesy Lindsay Ford)
B.C. children’s writer encourages girls to pursue the sciences in new book

Lindsay Ford is holding a virtual launch for latest book, ‘Science Girl’

Pig races at the 145th annual Chilliwack Fair on Aug. 12, 2017. Monday, March 1, 2021 is Pig Day. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress file)
Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of Feb. 28 to March 6

Pig Day, Canadian Bacon Day and Grammar Day are all coming up this week

Staff from the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre, passersby, RCMP and Nanaimo Fire Rescue carried a sick 300-kilogram steller sea lion up the steep bluff at Invermere Beach in north Nanaimo in an attempt to save the animal’s life Thursday. (Photo courtesy Marine Mammal Rescue Centre)
300-kilogram sea lion muscled up from B.C. beach in rescue attempt

Animal dies despite efforts of Nanaimo marine mammal rescue team, emergency personnel and bystanders

Doctors and counsellors warn of an increase in panic attacks, anxiety, depression and suicide ideas between ages 10 to 14, in Campbell River. ( Black Press file photo)
Extended pandemic feeding the anxieties of B.C.’s youth

Parents not sure what to do, urged to reach out for help

Kara Sorensen, diagnosed with lung cancer in July, says it’s important for people to view her as healthy and vibrant, rather than sick. (Photo courtesy of Karen Sorensen)
B.C. woman must seek treatment overseas for inoperable lung cancer

Fundraising page launched on Karen Sorensen’s behalf, with a goal of $250,000

Gina Adams as she works on her latest piece titled ‘Undying Love’. (Submitted photo)
‘Toothless’ the kitty inspires B.C. wood carver to break out the chainsaw

Inspired by plight of a toothless cat, Gina Adams offers proceeds from her artwork to help animals

B.C. Finance Minister Selina Robinson presents bill to delay B.C.’s budget as late as April 30, and allow further spending before that, B.C. legislature, Dec. 8, 2020. (Hansard TV)
How big is B.C.’s COVID-19 deficit? We’ll find out April 20

More borrowing expected as pandemic enters second year

Most Read