“You could hear the poor humans who were caught, screaming … Oh God, Jack, it was terrible…”
On November 18, 1929 at 5:02 pm Newfoundland time, a major earthquake occurred approximately 250 km south of Newfoundland along the southern edge of the Grand Banks. This magnitude 7.2 tremor was felt as far away as New York and Montreal.
Traveling at a speed of 140 kilometers per hour, the tidal wave reached the Burin Peninsula at 7:00 p.m. The tsunami struck the southern end of the Burin Peninsula as three main pulses, causing local sea levels to rise between 2 and 7 metres. At the heads of several of the long narrow bays on the Burin Peninsula the momentum of the tsunami carried water as high as 13 metres.
This giant sea wave claimed a total of 28 lives – 27 drowned on the Burin peninsula and a young girl never recovered from her injuries and died in 1933. This represents Canada’s largest documented loss of life directly related to an earthquake.
At Port aux Bras a fisherman saw his home being swept away. He tried to save his wife and family but was blocked by another floating house. He was helpless as his imprisoned family whirled into darkness. His house was pulled out to sea faster than a boat could steam.
Mr. Ern Cheeseman of Port au Bras on the Burin peninsula in a letter to his brother Jack a few days after the tsunami wrote: “You could hear the poor humans who were caught, screaming, women and men praying out loud. Oh God, Jack, it was terrible… Excuse this scribble but we are not over the shock yet. Every move one hears one jumps expecting the same to happen again.”
The Newfoundland government sent ships with doctors and supplies. Canada was the largest foreign donor donating $35,000 individual Newfoundlanders raised more than $200,000 to help their countrymen.
Apart from the Burin tsunami, two others have been reported, at Bonavista in 1755 as a result of the Lisbon earthquake, and St. Shott’s in June 1864. These caused damage, but no reported loss of life.
Recommended Archival Collection: At The Rooms Provincial Archives take some time to read MG 636: South Coast Disaster Relief Committee Report consists of a list of losses by settlement, reports, telegrams, correspondence, minutes of meetings; regarding the tidal wave and earthquake disaster on the Burin Peninsula, 1929. The collection also includes a report of the South Coast Disaster Committee, 1931.
Recommended Web Site: http://earthquakescanada.nrcan.gc.ca/histor/20th-eme/1929/1929-eng.php
Recommended Book: Hanrahan, Maura. Tsunami: The Newfoundland Tidal Wave Disaster. St. John’s: Flanker Press, 2004.