By Nick Eagland, The Province
Carolynne Drane started to pray as ice-cold water crept up her neck and toward her chin.
On the morning of Nov. 23, after her SUV fishtailed off the Sunshine Coast Highway and down a 12-metre embankment, it flipped onto its side and into a creek below, where rushing water threatened to pull her over a waterfall and down a deadly 30-metre drop. Trapped inside, she dwelled on her family and her faith.
“I was stuck in my seatbelt and the water was rising,” said Drane, 56, of Surrey. “I thought about my daughter and how I didn’t want her to not have a mother.”
For nearly four hours she braved the icy water flowing over her bruised body. Many times her mind wandered to dark places, but she knew she had to pull through for 23-year-old Lauren. Had it not been for a Good Samaritan stopping on the road to view the waterfall, seeing her overturned SUV and calling 911, Drane is certain she would have died that rainy day.
“I was just huddled in my car trying to survive,” she said. “I did my part, I stayed alive.”
Pender Harbour volunteer firefighter Bill Gilkes holds Carolynne Drane’s hands while Sechelt firefighter Tyrel Brackett fits her with a harness during a harrowing rescue on Nov. 23. RCMP photo / PNG Merlin Archive
Hypothermic, with a broken nose and a concussion, Drane’s body was numb, yet she forced her mind to stay alert, she said. She managed to undo her seatbelt and climbed toward the passenger-side door to look outside and form a plan. But being an experienced swimmer and boater, she correctly assumed the water was too strong for her to make it to the creek bank.
At times, she kept her eyes closed out of fear. But there were also “humorous moments,” she said. She recalled watching crackers floating around her and feeling guilty for littering. She laughed as a pair of cosy slippers, a gift from Lauren, floated by. She didn’t know help was on the way.
“Seeing that first fellow come down that hill, I had to blink,” she said. “It was like a miracle that I really was going to be saved.”
After the ordeal, she wept when she saw a photo of volunteer firefighter Bill Gilkes standing on her SUV and holding her hands.
“It was the first bit of warmth that I felt in four hours,” she said. “And he didn’t let me go. His training and everything — he was compassionate, he was professional and I felt so safe.”
And after a week of recovering in hospital, she is thinking often of those who saved her — the Good Samaritan, the firefighters, the Sunshine Coast Search and Rescue team, the B.C. Ambulance Service paramedics, police and the trauma team at Vancouver General Hospital.
Gilkes, who is deputy chief of the Pender Harbour Volunteer Fire Department, wouldn’t take any credit. He and other rescuers who were there that day are adamant that saving Drane was a team effort and one with no heroes.
After being paged around 1:30 p.m., he arrived on the second truck to the scene.
“You knew that time was of the essence,” Gilkes said. Rescuers determined they needed to secure a cable to the truck to ensure it wouldn’t come loose and tumble over the waterfall. The Pender Harbour crew called the Sechelt Fire Department to bring their ladder truck and rope-rescue team.
“The way stuff works on the coast here, they dropped everything they were doing,” Gilkes said.
After the SUV was secured in place, Gilkes carefully climbed onto its passenger side and stuck his head through a window. To his astonishment, Drane waved at him.
“I figured, OK, I’ve got to get in there and comfort her,” Gilkes said. He entered the SUV through the passenger-side front door and tried to lift Drane out, but after four hours of fighting for her life, she was exhausted.
Carolynne Drane and her daughter Lauren are shown in a submitted photo. Lauren Drane / PNG
Dwight Davison, assistant chief at the Sechelt Fire Department, said Sechelt firefighter Tyrel Brackett was sent down a line to hook Drane into a harness and connect her to a rope-rescue system.
“He (Brackett) was up to his mid-chest in water,” Davison said. “He basically got all of that onto her underwater.”
After both rescuers worked together to ensure Drane was safe and secure, she was pulled free from the SUV and brought to the side of the highway, where paramedics promptly tended to her injuries.
Davison said Sechelt Fire trains annually on rope rescue and the crew has run many simulations, albeit without fast-moving water and an overturned SUV.
It was a “high-risk, low-frequency type of a rescue” for the six-person, rope-rescue team, he said, but a success because all crews worked together.
“We’re kind of a smaller community and all of the emergency services get along really well,” Davison said.
Had it not been for the Good Samaritan’s call and the co-operation of crews, “the end result wouldn’t have been what it was today,” Gilkes said. “There would have been loss of life.”
Police Const. Harrison Mohr said Sunshine Coast RCMP arrived at the scene to provide logistical support, but credited the fire crews for their good work.
“The volunteers showed an incredible amount of bravery to get in there,” he said.
Mohr said the windy stretch of highway where Drane’s SUV fishtailed has a lower speed limit of 60 km/h and is seldom the scene of accidents, but road conditions were poor that day and it was pouring rain when her vehicle left the road.
Crews removed Drane’s SUV from the water Thursday afternoon.