At first the three Kitimat Hatchery staff members thought the fishermen along the river banks were shouting to let them know there was a bear in the water.
Shaun Barbosa, Sarah Bouwmeester and Stacey Hobson soon realized, however, that a life-or-death drama had unfolded right in front of them, as a 72-year-old French tourist fought the current in the Kitimat River to stay alive.
Shaun, the hatchery’s maintenance superintendent, Sarah, a salmon enhancement technician and Stacey, a fish culturist, were on duty on Friday, July 28, on the bank opposite the hatchery.
The three had set a net in the river just off the island to catch Chum and Chinook for the breeding program at the hatchery, and had returned on their fourth trip out to the spot from the hatchery to sort and load more fish.
“We had just finished filling up the transport tank to start loading fish when we heard shouting. At first we thought it was a bear,” said Shaun.
He said there were about 30 fishermen out on the river banks, shouting and pointing at the river – it was then the trio realized someone had fallen into the river and was being swept downriver.
They jumped back in the boat, Sarah at the helm, and they raced off down the river searching for the victim, following directions from the fishermen on the river banks who were pointing downriver.
Afraid they would overshoot the victim, they slowed down, frantically scanning the surface of the water for signs of the person. As they approached the Pollution Control Centre, they spotted a pair of wader boots sticking out the water and two arms flailing around in the water – they had found their man.
“He had stayed on his back, feet in the air, which is the correct position to be in if you fall into the river,” said Sarah.
When they got to the fisherman, they realized he was in serious danger of drowning – he was wearing waders without a wading belt, and while there was still air in the waders gathered around his feet which was keeping his legs up, the rest of his body was under water, including his head.
To make matters worse, as they approached the fisherman, he grabbed onto a submerged branch and stopped dead, the current pushing water into his waders, dragging him further under.
“He had used up everything he had by that stage – he was at the last little bit,” said Sarah.
“Had he grabbed that branch before we got there, those waders would have filled up completely and he would have gone down,” added Shaun.
When they pulled up alongside him, his face was upturned, under the water, the expression on his face registering shock.
Stacey immediately grabbed a bow rope and tossed it to the man, the first attempt unsuccessful. The second time she managed to throw the rope across him and he grabbed it with one hand while still holding onto the branch with the other.
Realizing he was too weak to pull himself out of the water, Stacey, hanging off the edge of the boat, took a chance and reached into the water with her other hand. The man grasped her hand with an iron grip, and using all her strength she pulled him closer to the boat.
Shaun joined in the rescue, and together they managed to pull the man alongside the boat, the task made all the more difficult by the current pulling at his waterlogged waders.
“The boat was leaning over so much that we were literally an inch away from taking on water,” said Shaun.
With his head now out of the water, the man’s gasping told his rescuers, however, that they had made it to him just in time.
“It’s amazing that he knew just what to do. He kept calm and didn’t try to pull us in,” said Sarah.
Shaun said considering how dire the situation was, he was surprised the man didn’t manhandle them. Sarah had by this time joined in the rescue, and between the three of them they managed to roll him up onto the deck of the boat.
“He is a big guy – it was really difficult to pull him up onto the boat,” said Shaun.
Shaun hooked the man’s one leg through the railing to stop him from rolling off the deck, grabbed the controls and gunned the engine, pointing the boat back upstream towards the hatchery.
On the way back to the hatchery they got onto the phone and called Marcus Feldhoff in the office to let him know to send help down to the boat ramp and to contact 911.
The man, who spoke very halting English with a strong French accent, identified himself as Danielle, in between bouts of hiccups.
He first words were “thank you, thank you – I love you Canada”, expressing his gratitude to his rescuers, even kissing Sarah’s hand.
“I said to him ‘you’re a funny guy’, to which he replied ‘I am French!’” said Sarah.
As they got to the boat ramp, Sarah jumped out and ran up the boat ramp to the office, while Shaun and Stacey stayed with him, keeping him in the recovery position.
Sarah returned with blankets, accompanied by Vince Sealy who brought down an Automated External Defibrillator (AED), and the group waited for the paramedics to arrive, monitoring the fisherman’s condition.
From the little bit they could glean with the fisherman’s broken English, it turned out that Friday was his last day in Canada and that he was due to fly out the country on Saturday.
When the paramedics arrived they helped get the fisherman onto a board and carried up to the ambulance. He spent the day at Kitimat General Hospital before being discharged.
“He was really lucky he got to go home. His sunglasses even stayed on, and his backpack which floated away from him was recovered and returned to him,” said Shaun.
Stacey said the fisherman’s near-drowning is a good reminder of how important the proper gear and good training is.
“It’s really important that people learn proper wading techniques and that they know their limits,” said Stacey.
Sarah said it is vital for fisherman to wear a wading belt with their waders.
“Waders, properly secured and sealed with a wading belt, can act as a flotation device,” said Sarah. “I’m always shocked to see families with children not wearing life jackets along the river bank.”
She said people who regularly use the river should also consider completing swiftwater awareness training, which can be done online.
“It’s amazing how quickly things can go wrong on the water,” said Shaun. “If this had happened 45 minutes later, when we had the boat back at the hatchery, the result could have been very different.”
He said with the work they do, there is always a possibility that they too could end up in the water, which is why they receive the training they do.