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Deaths a chilling reminder for Duncan woman of rescue manoeuvre that almost proved fatal

Jun 05 2012

The deaths of two search and rescue volunteers Sunday in a training exercise in Sechelt Inlet brought back disturbing memories for a Duncan woman and former volunteer with Cowichan Search and Rescue.

"It's just tragic. I think I know what they went through," Patricia Barnes said Monday of the two female volunteers with the Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue, who were among four in a boat that capsized in Skookumchuck Rapids.

Angie Nemeth, 43, and Beatrice Sorensen, 51, died when they were trapped beneath the overturned boat.

Barnes nearly died in February 2010 while training in the Cowichan River near Skutz Falls with the Cowichan Search and Rescue fast-water rescue team.

The team was training when the river is at its worst "because people don't get into trouble when the water is calm," she said.

Barnes was wearing a dry suit and a heavy-duty life-vest that's normally buoyant enough to hold up three people.

The exercise involved members of the team being in the fast-moving water while another member on shore throws out a line weighted with a bag at the end. The swimmer grabs the rope and swings toward the shore.

This is a manoeuvre that Barnes had done 100 times, one that was "easypeasy," she said.

But the current was especially strong that day and when Barnes caught the rope, she was almost pulled underwater. The second time she did the exercise, she was farther into the strong main flow of the river.

Barnes remembers catching the rope "and the first thing it did was suck me right underwater, even with me wearing a [lifevest] that holds three people up."

She pulled the rope and was prepared to rescue herself, but the weighted bag at the rope's end caught on a clip of her life-jacket. She tried to pull the rope back from her body to release it from her vest, but she was fighting her own weight and the current.

"I was underwater, wondering what I was going to do next," Barnes said.

She was underwater for what felt like hours.

"I was able to pull the rope with both hands and was able to pull myself up to get a breath of air. I just came through waves trying to get a breath and not a mouthful of water."

Others arrived to assist the team member on shore, who was holding the rope against the strong current as Barnes struggled to free herself.

"I was underwater thinking this was how it was going to end," Barnes said. "I'd had a fight with my daughter before I left and I was thinking about how we'd left it. Then I felt the water get calmer, there wasn't quite so much drag. I was able to pull myself up again and get a breath of air."

The four colleagues on shore pulled Barnes into calmer water and she was rescued.

"I did everything right and they did everything right," Barnes said.

She remembered later that the clip where the rope was caught could have been quickly released from her life-vest had she pulled a strap, "although if I had [released] myself, I would not have been on the rope anymore and I would have been going down the river, which also would have been bad."

The mishap caused Barnes to lose her nerve.

"I've been in the water since and it terrified me," said Barnes, who quit the team as a result of the mishap.

"The first time in the water after that, it all came back. The cold water splashed against my face and I was thinking, 'I can't do this.' "

Her overall experience with the swift-water team was amazing, she said.

Even on a fun day of tubing the Cowichan River begins with Barnes quizzing her friends on how to rescue themselves if things go wrong.

"It's nice to be able to use that knowledge for other life experiences."

smcculloch@timescolonist.com

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