Cameron Barnes and his mother Mary Jane Hammond watched in horror as an SUV lost control and flipped into the Spray Lakes Reservoir, trapping James Allan and Jennifer, Jaimie and Darrin Waugh of Calgary and Cochrane, on Dec. 30.
Jaimie Waugh was the only survivor. Jaimie and James Allan were married, and Darrin and and Jennifer Waugh, married, were Jaimie’s brother and sister-in-law.
The SUV, travelling on the snow-covered Spray Lakes Road about 10 kilometres from Canmore, hit the right snowbank before veering across the road and flipping onto its roof in the reservoir, according to Barnes and Hammond.
The mother and son immediately sprang into action. Barnes, 27, threw his cell phone to his mother and raced towards the sinking wreckage 200 feet away.
Plunging chest deep into the frigid waters, he fearlessly began a rescue attempt.
“I remember getting there and it not looking too dangerous. There was no current,” he said.
The former Canadian Alpine ski team member initially tried to kick in the windshield, but to no avail.
“I grabbed a rock and put my hand through a window on the driver’s side and got the door open,” Barnes said.
Turbid water reduced visibility in the SUV’s cabin, which was almost completely full of water. However, Barnes found two people in the vehicle – including 33-year-old Jaimie Waugh - still alive. Another bystander arrived on the scene and they tried to pull the victims from the wreckage.
Barnes could see the woman did not have much time. “Her face was just under the water, high and to the right. We lifted the car so her head was above water and tried to pull her out,” Barnes said.
He switched back and forth between the front and back of the SUV, trying to remove two people at once. At one point, they flipped the SUV onto its side to better access the victims trapped inside.
A second bystander removed a man in the back seat, who had become tangled up in his seatbelt. Hammond, who runs a bed and breakfast in Canmore, helped get the unconscious man up the embankment.
“Desperately, we were trying to get him to the road,” Hammond said.
Barnes did not feel the -25 C cold, he said, but after only minutes it began to take its toll. He made one last attempt to remove the conscious woman from the vehicle.
“My hands were completely frozen. I ripped her out of there and then I got really cold,” he said.
His arms bloodied from the broken glass, Barnes and his mother made sure the woman got up the steep embankment. Waugh was put into a car and taken to hospital immediately.
Barnes knew he could not go back in the water.
“I was bleeding like crazy. It looked like I had gotten into a fight with a really angry cat,” Barnes said, aware hypothermia had begun to set in.
Les McDonald, a filmmaker in Banff, arrived on scene minutes later with his fiancée. They had been filming wildlife all day and arrived on scene at 3:45 p.m. – just as Jaimie Waugh was being driven to the hospital. Other bystanders had begun CPR on the first man removed from the car.
“It got pretty crazy pretty fast,” McDonald said. “There was a woman asking if anyone had a knife. I grabbed an axe and headed down to the water.”
The shock of sub-zero temperatures hit McDonald immediately as he helped pull the second male victim from the SUV.
“The water was so cold. I’ve never done anything like that before,” McDonald said. “It was crazy. Everything seemed to take longer. It was amazing how fast you became useless in that water.”
The filmmaker, whose previous first aid experience was shooting a CPR video years ago, went into convulsions and had to get back to his heated car as emergency crews arrived on scene.
“I’ve seen a lot in my life, but I’ve never seen anything like this,” McDonald said. “My life won’t be the same.”
Canmore firefighters and Kananaskis public safety officers donned dry suits and removed the last victim from the wreck – 39-year-old Jennifer Waugh. They also took over CPR duties on the victims before transporting them to hospital.
Public safety officials praised the efforts of the rescuers.“They risked their own well-being to give the people in the vehicle the best chance to survive. They definitely deserve credit for that,” said Kananaskis Public Safety officer Mike Koppang.
Days afterwards, the rescuers were still plagued with doubts – wondering if they could have done more to save everyone in the car.
“We didn’t lollygag. I don’t know how we could have done anything else,” Barnes said.
He’s been called a hero for his actions, but it’s not something he’s comfortable with.
“I don’t think what we did was out of the ordinary. I feel like the good thing to do is the right thing to do. Helping others is the right thing to do.”
He has more praise for the bystanders providing CPR to the victims. “That’s something I couldn’t do,” he said.
McDonald has purchased window breakers and seatbelt cutters for his friends and family to use in case of an accident. He’s planning to practice using them.
“I’ll do whatever I can do to keep my friends and family safe,” McDonald said.
Canmore RCMP Cpl. Jack Wrobel said the cause of the accident is still under investigation. Road conditions may have been a factor as several safety officials noted the road was covered in snow.
“We encourage people to slow down and drive to the weather conditions,” said Wrobel.