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A truck rests on a rocky embankment with its engine hood partially submerged in a lake. Coniferous trees and rugged mountains are in the background.

Group effort saves man from sunken truck

An off-duty RCMP officer plunged into Harrison Lake in British Columbia in May 2022 to rescue a man who was trapped under water. Credit: RCMP


Standing on a truck cab submerged in the icy waters of a B.C. lake, Constable Ben Stewart was catching his breath and starting to accept the idea that the person inside had drowned.

The events that led to that moment started an hour earlier, on a stretch of highway with a steep mountain slope on one side and Harrison Lake on the other. The off-duty RCMP officer was called to the scene just after 7 p.m. on May 30, 2022, after the truck careened into the southern end of the lake, about 130 kilometres east of Vancouver.

Diving into action

"If a car loses control there it's likely bound for the water," says Stewart, who lives close to the site of the accident.

Stewart was summoned by the Kent-Harrison Search and Rescue team with whom he volunteers. When he arrived, police and members of the Agassiz Fire Department were at the scene. A local citizen, wearing a wetsuit, had already gone into the water but was unable to rescue the driver. After conferring, the first responders agreed that another attempt was warranted, but this time Stewart volunteered to go in.

To make the plunge, Stewart borrowed the wetsuit and was given a window punch and slash gloves — tools that would allow him to safely break the truck's window. For safety, a rope was tied around his wrist and held by firefighters.

After scrambling down the steep, rocky embankment to the shoreline, Stewart dove into the lake's glacially fed waters. A quick 10-metre swim led him to the truck, which had been submerged under three metres of water for about 30 minutes. He was able to stand on top of the truck's cab.

"First, I stomped on the roof to see if I got a response," Stewart says. There was none.

After diving down, he was able to break the glass on the driver's side door and was hoping to see air bubbles — an indication that an air pocket in the truck might be providing a few minutes of life-saving oxygen. There were none.

Stewart says he eventually tried to pull the man out, but couldn't.

Keeping hope alive

At this point, the prospects for a successful rescue were fading. But, a movement from the water caught Stewart's eye — the driver's left hand drifted out the open window. It was the sliver of hope he needed to plunge back into the lake.

On this dive, Stewart managed to dislodge the driver and guide his body through the window. "I don't know why that happened when it did," he says. "I can't confirm whether or not he had his seat belt on."

Eventually, he pulled the driver to the surface, where the man's head and eyes started to move. It was then Stewart said he realized in disbelief, "this guy's actually alive," and he shouted to rescue personnel onshore: "We need to step things up!"

The other first responders pulled Stewart to shore with the rope, and secured the rescued man to a stretcher and lifted him up the embankment. He was then wrapped in blankets and B.C. Ambulance took him to a waiting helicopter, which flew him to a hospital.

Watching, planning and reacting

Mike Van Laerhoven, deputy chief of the Agassiz Fire Department, was one of the responders overseeing the scene from the shore. "In a situation like this, we make plans for what could come next," he says.

That meant preparing medical equipment and finding a way to get the driver over the roadside embankment as dozens supported Stewart's efforts. "I think everyone understood the gravity of the situation," said Van Laerhoven. "It was one of those outcomes that you hope to see but you're not expecting to see."

RCMP Constable Kyle Toole, who was also at the rescue scene, says the lake conditions likely played a big role in the man's survival. "Everyone local knows how cold that water is so it's possible those cold temperatures lowered his vitals, or slowed his body down, and helped him to survive," says Toole. "No matter what, it's impressive he survived."

Stewart says the man was in hospital for a few days and then released. He spoke with the man in July and his family has provided several health updates since.

"He was very grateful and was focused on recovery," says Stewart. "The guy is a fighter for sure."

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