Swift waters prove dangerous 

Three people plucked from icy waters, but fire chief says no more swift water rescues

Three people spent close to an hour trapped in a vehicle that landed in Callaghan Creek early Monday morning. Photo by Maureen Provencal
  • Three people spent close to an hour trapped in a vehicle that landed in Callaghan Creek
    early Monday morning. Photo by Maureen Provencal

Three people pulled from their vehicle that crashed into Callaghan Creek this week were alive but hypothermic after waiting almost an hour to be rescued.

Shortly before 5 a.m. Monday morning two young women and a middle-aged man travelling northbound in their 1998 Honda Civic missed the Callaghan Creek bridge, landing in the fast-running waters.

Firefighters arriving on the scene about seven kilometres south of Function Junction had to wait 20 minutes to receive permission from Whistler’s fire chief Bruce Hall to undertake rescue operations. RCMP and ambulance attendants were already on scene.

Three months ago Hall eliminated swift water rescues from Whistler firefighter duties, citing prohibitive training costs and lack of necessity. The fire department had made only one such similar rescue in five years.

Trapped in their four-door car the male, 49, and women, 23 and 18, were conscious and aware of waist-high frigid waters. Firefighters maintained contact with the occupants while waiting for Hall. Upon arriving Hall quickly gave permission for the rescue. In dry suits, four firefighters approached from downstream the car that had landed about 5 metres from shore facing upstream. The unnamed Vancouver residents were freed and carried to shore, placed in basket-like stretchers, and taken by ambulance to Whistler Health Care Centre. They were treated for hypothermia and later released.

Whistler’s fire chief said if the single-vehicle accident had occurred two weeks earlier he would have nixed the rescue.

"During the warm spell I would not have allowed them to go into the river because it would have been at such a height and volume that it would have exposed the crew to a risk," Hall said.

He said swift water rescues are dangerous ventures that don’t happen frequently enough to warrant costs involved in training and certifying Whistler’s 23 full-time firefighters. He maintains the no-swift water rescue ban will remain in place. Instead the department will rely on Pemberton Search and Rescue to attend swift water situations by helicopter.

Pemberton Search and Rescue, along with Whistler Search and Rescue did attend Monday’s accident scene, arriving after the rescue.

Whistler Search and Rescue volunteers are trained to do backcountry rescues and their arrival time Monday was actually quick, said manager Brad Sills.

"That is as fast as it will get," Sills said. "We don’t sit in a station like the fire department and ambulance do."

Mayor Ken Melamed defended the fire department’s policy.

"These decisions aren’t made lightly," Melamed said. "They’re made with careful reflection and the money that might have been invested in swift water rescue is probably well invested in other areas of training."

Pemberton’s 23 fire department members are all trained in swift-water rescue.

"I just think that it’s part of the business we’re in because of the area we’re in," said Pemberton fire chief Russell Mack.

He expressed concern about slow response time Pemberton Search and Rescue could provide Whistler in swift-water incidents.

"Response time in our business is the most critical thing," he said.

Pemberton undertakes about one swift water rescue a year and Mack noted they are usually grim events involving fatal accidents. But he believes swift water rescue training is vital, adding that all of the Richmond fire department members, where he worked for 27 years, had swift water rescue training for use on the Fraser River. "And that’s not a swift river by our comparison, but it’s water."

Whistler RCMP said alcohol was not a factor in Monday’s accident, which is being investigated by a Lower Mainland traffic analyst.

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