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True Stories: High Water Rescue

An innocent tubing trip with friends nearly turns deadly for a B.C. teenager. Can a specialized search and rescue team get to her in time?

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True Stories: High Water Rescue

Alyssa O’Blenis had already lost the feeling in her arms and legs
when she spotted someone walking in the woods above the Puntledge River. She screamed louder than she ever had in her life. If the man didn’t hear her, he wouldn’t look down. If he didn’t look down, he wouldn’t see a 15-year-old girl 50 metres below him clinging to a log jutting up from the riverbottom. How much longer before she lost her grip? But the rapids were louder than Alyssa’s screams. Oblivious, the stranger strolled out of sight.

On any beautiful summer’s day in any Canadian town close to a tranquil river, it’s a safe bet that people are out tubing. Hang around the banks and you’ll see them drift downstream in pairs or small groups, reclining on pumped-to-bursting inner tubes and inflatable mattresses.

This is certainly true in the Comox Valley, a bucolic watershed tucked between mountain and sea on Vancouver Island’s east coast, where tubing down the Puntledge has long been a popular pastime. The pebble-bottomed river descends between densely forested banks from Comox Lake Dam, which provides valley residents with their electricity while maintaining a placid flow ideal for recreation.

But last July, the Puntledge became a different kind of river. Mount Washington, the ski resort whose runoff feeds directly into Comox Lake, had received a record 18.4 metres of snowfall that winter. After a cool spring failed to thaw much of anything, a bout of warm July rain unleashed a torrent of meltwater that strained the Comox Dam to bursting. On the morning of July 18, BC Hydro opened the dam gates, increasing the river’s volume over the course of the day from 42 to a furious 140 cubic metres per second. The watercourse was eventually strewn with trees it had ripped off the banks.

Alyssa, an auburn-haired surfer and snowboarder, didn’t know any of this when she texted her friend Taylor Gutcher about going tubing. Taylor was visiting from Brantford, just outside of Toronto; she’d never been down the Puntledge. Neither had her father, Michael Chenier, an athletic 33-year-old real estate agent who had moved to Comox eight years earlier and had become good friends with Alyssa’s dad, Sean. Both Michael and Taylor agreed to join Alyssa for what she described as “15 minutes of fun you don’t get in Toronto.” Around 3:30 p.m., Sean loaded the three of them into his Jeep and dropped them off at the usual spot, just below a salmon hatchery. Then he drove to Puntledge Park, a few minutes away, where he expected them to appear before the engine cooled.

Next: After a missed warning sign, a hidden danger quickly puts the tubers at risk.

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BC Hydro had posted warning signs near the shore, but the three tubers failed to notice them in their excitement
; despite its higher flow the river looked benign from where they stood. Adding to their perception of the river’s safety was another crew of tubers who jumped in ahead of them and sailed off without a hitch.

But when the river reaches this volume, invisible but deadly currents can erupt just below the surface. Less than a minute after they put out, one of those currents caught hold of Alyssa, Taylor and Chenier and hurled them straight into a “sweeper” – an overhanging tree whose branches reached into the river, forming a lethal underwater lattice. Chenier hit it first; sprawled “La-Z-Boy style” over two inner tubes, he was sucked feet-first through the sweeper and spat out the other side. Both his inner tubes popped instantly. As he thrashed to the surface, Chenier managed to grab hold of a log jammed into the rocks lining the bottom of the river. Only when he climbed onto it did he notice the bone-deep, 18 centimetres-long gash running across his inner right thigh. “It looked like a Ginsu knife had made a perfect incision,” he remembers.

Alyssa and Taylor were next. They were sharing what looked like a queen-size inflatable mattress but was actually two separate singles bound together. As they accelerated into the sweeper, the current spun them so that Alyssa faced forward while Taylor stared back upstream; at the last moment Alyssa brought her feet up and pushed against the tree to avoid being sucked under.

“The current squished us back to back so we couldn’t see each other,” Taylor remembers. “Alyssa kept calling out, ‘You’re still there, right?’ But I was too scared to talk.” For a seemingly endless moment the two girls were locked in place, jammed against the sweeper by the water’s flow and unable to move. Then Taylor’s inflatable mattress burst and the current dragged her under. She cycled through the sweeper only to have the river spit her safely onto shore, equidistant from her father and Alyssa. Her back was marked with minor lacerations, but she avoided serious injury.

That left Alyssa alone on her mattress. Despite the relentless current, she managed to shove her way around the sweeper instead of going under it. Then she bounced over the rapids and caught onto the same log Chenier had draped himself over.

“He looked like a dead man,” Alyssa says. Chenier’s cut was so deep it could easily have pierced his femoral artery, but with all the water it was impossible to gauge how badly he was bleeding. “I just knew I had a better chance of surviving on that log than he did,” says Alyssa.

They agreed that Chenier would take the mattress and jump back in the river. “I said, listen, half my leg is wide open, and your dad is three minutes down the river,” recalls Chenier. “I’m going to go get him and we’ll call for help.” All Alyssa had to do was sit and wait.

Chenier pushed into the current and sped safely through the danger zone and into the river’s calm middle, eventually drifting out of sight.

Taylor stayed on the wooded shore by Alyssa’s perch; the two girls were less than ten metres apart but the current’s strength dashed any hope of swimming across. As the minutes stretched to half an hour, then an hour, that gulf only seemed to widen. The sun fell below the treeline while the river kept rising, jostling the log harder with every passing moment. What’s taking so long? Alyssa wondered. Her teeth were starting to chatter. Both she and Taylor were fighting back tears by the time the stranger walked past in the woods above. When he failed to hear their cries, Alyssa put her head down and wept.

Next: The first rescue team’s best efforts to save Alyssa end in failure.

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Constable Laura Shaw received the distress call at the Comox RCMP station at 5:43 p.m.
The details were vague: a girl was stranded somewhere below the fish hatchery. It was a five-minute drive from the station, and once there Shaw spent almost half an hour bushwhacking her way along the swollen riverbank with a colleague before coming across the startling sight of a rail-thin high-school girl with long blond hair shivering next to the water – Taylor Gutcher. But the sight of Alyssa, who had now been in the river for two hours, was more worrying still.

“She was gripping that log like a koala bear,” Shaw says. Shaw immediately called out to her. “Look me in the eyes!” she yelled. “Don’t look down!”
At first, the sight of RCMP buoyed Alyssa’s spirits. “That amped me up,” she says. But the relief faded during the agonizing 20 minutes it took for the Comox Valley Ground Search and Rescue team to mobilize.

In all, 18 search and rescuers showed up, including search manager Paul Berry. His first order was for 14 of his team to fan out along the riverbank in case Alyssa came within snatching distance.

“Right away we knew this was going to be a very dangerous rescue,” Berry recalls. “We had one sweeper 20 metres upstream from Alyssa and another directly below. The log she was on formed a 45-degree angle to the current, which meant there was no eddie behind it.” If Alyssa or her rescuers fell into the current, in other words, they would fly straight into the next sweeper. Just one week earlier, a search and rescuer named Sheilah Sweatman had drowned in a similar rescue operation near Creston, B.C., a fact of which Berry and his team were well aware.

By now, Taylor had been bundled off to the hospital. Shaw kept talking to Alyssa, telling her what to expect while Berry harnessed a rope to one of his men. With Berry and two others holding the rope from shore, the man leaped into the water directly below the first sweeper and swam furiously for Alyssa. He never came close. It took all the combined strength of Berry and his men to haul him back to shore before the next sweeper consumed him.

They tried again, and the same thing happened.

While Berry’s team regrouped, Alyssa began nodding off. To keep her awake, Shaw continued shouting out to her over the noise of the rapids. “She was so close, all you wanted to do was jump in and save her,” Shaw says. “But even these professional search and rescuers couldn’t do it. At that moment I was convinced she was going to slip off that log and drown.”

Next came Berry’s Plan B: the “banana boat,” an 18-foot double-hulled yellow rubber raft, open at both ends like a catamaran. Two men would launch the boat 100 metres upstream from Alyssa; they then had to paddle around the first sweeper and get close enough to nab her.

Unfortunately, this required Alyssa’s participation – and she was exhausted. Shaw yelled out the instructions: Crawl down the log towards the boulder and wrap it in a bear hug.

Alyssa did as she was told, the rapids hammering her back as she inched onto the boulder. No sooner had the banana boat launched, it hit a log upstream from Alyssa. One of the rescuers fell overboard and barely made it to shore. Second and third rescue attempts were equally unsuccessful. It was now well past 7 p.m., and Alyssa had been in the water for more than three hours. Her lips were blue, her extremities numb. But there was nothing more Berry could do without unacceptable risk to his own team.

“All I could think was, I’m not ready to die!” Alyssa remembers. “I went through my bucket list and realized I hadn’t done anything yet. I wasn’t even going to turn 16.”

Finally, the RCMP called in the 442.

Next: As the hours continue to pass, a helicopter is called in to attempt a life-saving rescue.

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Aircraft captain Major Troy Maa was running exercises over Lasqueti Island, about ten minutes from Comox Valley, when the RCMP call came in
. His mammoth Cormorant helicopter was the flagship of the 442 Squadron, the only search-and-rescue outfit operating out of the Comox military base. With room enough for 12 stretchers in its cargo hold and a five-tonne load capacity, the Cormorant required three people just to fly it: Maa, his co-pilot and a flight engineer, joined that day by two search-and-rescue technicians – an elite group trained to jump into storm-lashed oceans or parachute onto steep mountainsides.

For these men, plucking a girl from a river on a mild summer evening was a cakewalk. But first they had to find her. They knew Alyssa was somewhere below the fish hatchery, but inching over the treetops that crowded the narrow river in an attempt to locate her “was like trying to spot an aphid in a head of broccoli,” Maa says. Still, it took only a few moments to spot the aphid. The next problem was downwash.

“We were concerned about blowing dead trees into the water, or knocking Alyssa off her log,” says Maa of the epic winds created by the Cormorant’s rotors. He decided to hover the helicopter at 66 metres above the water. It was the longest hoist the flight engineer, Master Corporal Rainer Roedger, had ever operated outside of training.

Shaw told Alyssa to wedge herself between the log and a rock and to cover her head. Then both their worlds disappeared in a vortex of wind and water.

“It was like a hurricane all around me,” Alyssa says. “I couldn’t see a thing. I really thought that was the end.”

What she couldn’t see was Sergeant Bob Hervieux, the mission’s 52-year-old search and rescue technician, swaying at the end of a cable as Roedger lowered him toward Alyssa, placing him in the water just above her.

On the second try, it worked. Once Hervieux was submerged, all Roedger had to do was let out the final few metres of cable. At 8:30 p.m., nearly five hours after Alyssa had jumped into the Puntledge, she felt a firm hand grasp her shoulder accompanied by a voice that said, “My name’s Bob! I’m going to take you to safety.”

Next: Finally out of danger, Alyssa strikes two items off her bucket list.

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Not only did Alyssa live to see her 16th birthday, but she also struck two items off her bucket list that night.
First was a helicopter flight back to the 442 base, where medics and a shower awaited. She emerged into the embrace of her mother, Kim, who’d come home from work that evening to discover that her daughter was the subject of an intense rescue operation; her initial consternation with her husband for putting their daughter in harm’s way dissolved the moment she saw Alyssa, shaken but alive, coming out of the base’s medical unit.

Sean, it turned out, hadn’t realized the gravity of his daughter’s plight until it was too late. When Chenier came ashore at Puntledge Park, in shock and potentially bleeding to death, he’d assured Sean that his daughter was sitting safely on a log upriver. “That was the one day in five years that I didn’t have my cellphone on me,” Sean says. He borrowed a phone to call 9-1-1. Then, under the assumption Alyssa and Taylor were unharmed, he raced his friend to the hospital. By the time he got back to the Puntledge, the fire department had sealed off the area.

After his daughter was whisked off on the Cormorant, Sean went home to help prepare her welcome-home dinner, leaving Kim to pick Alyssa up from the 442 base. She wasn’t alone. Shaw had also driven to the base, eager to finally hug the girl who’d been just out of reach for so many frustrating hours. “Watching Alyssa get lifted into that helicopter was one of the best moments of my career,” Shaw says. Her voice was reduced to a whisper after shouting all day, but she had enough of it left to offer Alyssa a ride home in the front seat of her squad car.

Alyssa accepted – and scratched another item off her bucket list.