SPARWOOD, B.C. - Thousands of people gathered in grief Sunday in the tiny mining town of Sparwood, B.C., to bid a final farewell to eight local snowmobilers who were doing what they loved when they died last weekend in a tragic string of avalanches.
To the strains of bagpipers, mourners filed in to the local hockey arena, where the photos of the eight victims stood on a makeshift stage, flanked by a pair of snowmobiles. Flowers and photo montages decorated the front of the platform.
"These men were all about playing hard and playing safe," funeral celebrant Capreece Bowers told the gathering.
"This was a group of men who respected the mountain, the snow, and the power of their machines ... these men were what community is all about."
The victims - Daniel Bjarnson, 28; Kurt Kabel, 28; Warren Rothel, 33; Kane Rusnak, 30; Thomas Talarico, 32; Blayne Wilson, 26; Michael Stier, 20; and Michael's 45-year-old father, Leonard Stier - were struck by a succession of avalanches up to five metres in height that came thundering down the slope at 150 kilometres an hour.
"To the families of the eight men who perished in this great tragedy, my heart breaks for you," said Pastor David Purdy, a former Sparwood resident who came back to pay his respects and participate in the memorial.
Purdy hailed the sacrifices of all 11 of the snowmobilers, several of whom were in the throes of trying to rescue those buried by the first avalanche when the second one came rumbling down the slope.
And he offered soothing words to the family members left behind.
"As you begin the transition of knowing these men in time and space to knowing them in your memories and in spirit, cherish the good times that you shared," Purdy said.
"Invite them into your future. Still speak of them, and to them, and celebrate their memory."
The memorial service capped a week of public mourning for the eight, who were among a group of 11 caught up in fearsome snowslides in the mountainous Harvey Valley in the southeastern B.C. interior.
Jim Abbott, the federal MP for the riding of Kootenay-Columbia, was also on hand to offer sympathy and condolences to the community,
"When we're faced with a tragedy of this magnitude, we gather together as community," Abbott said.
"Sparwood is more than a location on a map - it's a special, unique group of residents, and we're gathered here today to grieve, and to support the families."
Officials had been predicting as many as 7,000 people to attend Sunday's memorial, but the turnout appeared to be significantly smaller, likely due to poor weather in the area.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper would be writing individual notes to each of the eight families, said Abbott, who also read a letter issued by Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean.
"At a time when we should be celebrating the bright possibilities of a new year," Jean wrote, "instead we mourn those lost to the unpredictability of nature."
There was also an element of survival to the tragedy.
Jeff Adams, James Drake and Jeremy Rusnak made it out to safety after digging themselves and each other out of the hard-packed snow, sometimes with just bare hands.
The trio was also forced to make what Adams called a "gut-wrenching decision" to leave their entombed friends behind in the unstable area where there had already been several avalanches.
"Do not accept the blame of the ignorant who have not walked a mile in your boots," Purdy told the three survivors.
"Discover the tasks that you have yet to fulfill, and live with renewed purpose. There will be difficult days ahead, but you are surrounded by loving friends and family. In your time, talk to them, and do not carry the burden alone."
Private services began Friday for the victims, so hundreds of locals have already attended vigils and candle-lighting ceremonies.
On Tuesday, two days after the avalanche, 250 people went to St. Michael's Catholic Church to remember the men. Another 150 met at the Sparwood Christian Centre to shed tears.
There has already been a global outpouring of emotion and words of support for the survivors and the victims' families. More more than 3,000 postings quickly appeared on Facebook, some from as far as Australia.
"For the three survivors, hang in there," wrote Kathy Mooy-Klima. "Your friends know that you did all you could to help them."
"I hope that you will be able to grieve and move on. Your friends would want you to be happy."
Adams told a news conference Wednesday the friends knew the avalanche danger was high, but came prepared with shovels, probes and locator-transmitters. However, the deaths of these eight men has ignited a national online debate about risk-taking in the backcountry with high-powered snow machines.