Author Bruce Stagg documents the tragedy of the Harbour Breton landslide
It happened 39 years ago, Aug. 1, 1973: a landslide tore four Harbour Breton homes from their foundations and sent them smashing into the harbour.
Twenty-two people slept in the path of destruction, including Jack Hickey, father of six children — four of whom (Pauline, 8, Eddie, 7, Timothy, 6, and Julie, 4) lost their lives that day.
The names of the Hickey children are inscribed on a monument erected in memory of the Harbour Breton landslide, not far from the mountain which collapsed on the community.
When Bruce Stagg saw the memorial site, he knew there was a bigger story to be told, one that he recently documented in the book, “Landslide: The Jack Hickey Story.”
“It’s quite touching,” says Stagg, who had seen the monument while visiting his daughter in 2008.
“You know, you get the gist of the story when you think of four young children that lost their lives, all from one family, and it was right on this site. It was almost a surreal feeling that I got standing there.”
The author began to investigate further, looking for people who knew about or were directly affected by the incident.
“I was expecting that most of the people involved would not be around anymore, but Jack was only a young man when this happened,” Stagg says.
The only thing keeping Stagg from writing the story was that he needed to learn enough about the event to decide if he could write about it.
When he first met Hickey, Stagg says he was amazed by his strength and willingness to share his story.
“I said to him, I’m not sure that this is a story that I can tell. I’m not promising you I’m going to write it, but I need to talk to you first,” Stagg says.
“Because I wasn’t interested in writing a story just about the deaths of four children. And once I talked to him and he gave me a bit of background of his life story and the details, he said, it’s a love story. And I said OK, here it is. Yes, there’s a story here too that I can wrap all around this.”
Hickey has suffered tremendous loss in his lifetime, not only with the deaths of his children in the landslide, but other family members over the years.
“So far, I’ve lost five children, a wife, and five siblings,” Hickey says.
“And a lot of it was traumatic, you know.”
Such is the difficulty of writing a book that deals with someone else’s personal struggles — Stagg knew it would be hard to talk about, and he would need Hickey’s blessing before he started.
“The more I thought about the story, the more I said, well, maybe I should write it,” Stagg says.
“I got the courage and I called (Hickey) up, and luckily, he was anxious to tell the story. He was afraid that the story was being lost and it was never properly documented. But he consented for me to tell the story if I were to tell the entire story.”
Hickey has since lost wife, Olive, and daughter Jo-Anne, who were both survivors of the landslide. He remarried to Gertie and raised daughters Cavell, also a survivor of the landslide, and Olivia, born two years after.
“He’s come full circle. He’s married his initial sweetheart and two of his children are still living happily and he’s got grandchildren,” Stagg says.
“He’s living a relatively happy life today, so it’s not all tragedy.”
Stagg says that none of these personal details were spared in the book, and he often consulted with Hickey to make sure that the writing was accurate.
“Jack was always there. I always say it’s as much Jack’s book as it is mine,” Stagg says.
“He was always there to answer the questions because I delve into some pretty personal stuff. I’d be writing and I’d want to know something, and I just picked the phone up and I said, Jack, where were you then? What was this, what was that like?”
Hickey wasn’t bothered by the phone calls. When he got the news that Stagg would be turning his story into a book, he was elated.
“I wanted the whole thing wrote,” Hickey says.
“All my life, ever since, I felt like it was a story that wasn’t going anywhere. My children were small and they always grew up knowing what we told them. They never had any inclination at all ... of the seriousness of what happened. I always felt that the story was lost forever. I was never satisfied with it.”
Hickey still gets emotional reading the book, but says he’s happy with the end result.
“Once something is written in a book, it becomes history. So, long after I’m dead and gone, the story’s still there,” he says.
Stagg believes that helping with the book was therapeutic for Hickey, because it allowed him to recall what happened and learn what other people experienced that day.
“After I met with Jack and realized there was a story here, well, immediately I started interviewing the other people involved,” Stagg says.
“I went to Harbour Breton and met with some people down there that Jack had mentioned to me — some of the people that were involved in the rescue. I wanted to tell their stories in detail as well, and incorporate that into the entire story. I wanted Jack’s story to be told, but I also wanted to preserve this little bit of the history of Harbour Breton.”
Many of the people involved in the rescue kept the details of the incident to themselves all these years.
“It was very hard for people to talk about,” Stagg says.
“Jack learned things through the writing of this book that he had not known previously — his brother kept things from him, and other people, too. I guess you don’t just walk up to a person and tell them the grim details of finding your children.”
Hickey says he was shocked when people began to describe everything that had happened the morning of the landslide.
“People didn’t tell me too much,” he says.
Those involved in the rescue worked tirelessly to retrieve people from the mud and debris, sending the injured to the hospital and digging for hours to find the missing children.
“They didn’t look at it as being any heroic deed or anything they wanted praise for. It was just something that needed to be done at the time, and they did it,” Stagg says.
“I had many people shed tears when they were telling me their story about that rescue that night, 39 years later.”
For Hickey, the reality of the Harbour Breton landslide has followed him for years, but now, he’s comforted by the fact that the story is in print.
“For 38 years, I used to always dream — maybe two, three times a week — I’m coming off work and can’t find my car. No way I can find my car,” he says.
“I looked into it once, and dream analysts say that it’s an unfulfilled life. You’re searching for something. And last week, when I was notified that the book was out on the market, I find that’s gone. That’s gone. There’s a part of my life now that’s settled right away.”