Volunteer firefighters save Mountie in daring rescue

John Giggey
January 05, 2011
Written by John Giggey
Peggy’s Cove, just outside Halifax, is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Nova Scotia. The picturesque village and its famous lighthouse draws an estimated 750,000 visitors a year. When that many people closely interact with an unpredictable Atlantic Ocean, some tragedy is inevitable.

The two firefighters and two RCMP officers involved in the Nov. 6 rescue of Const. Chris Richard meet at Peggy’s Cove on Dec. 9 for the first time since the incident. From left are firefighter Jason Sparkes, constables Scott Locke and Richard, and firefighter Greg Kutney. At this time, Richard was still recovering from his injuries and had not yet returned to duty. Waves were washing over these rocks on the night of Nov. 6. (Photo by Halifax Fire and Emergency Services)

During a November storm, huge waves took the life of one man. Then, the ocean almost claimed an RCMP constable and the three rescuers who went to save him. Here is their story.

This was not the first time members from Station 55 had performed a dramatic rescue in the face of fierce waves at Peggy’s Cove. Most of the volunteer firefighters in this photo can’t even be seen as a wave crashes ashore during Tropical Storm Noel on Nov. 2, 2007. They are immobilizing a man who strayed too close to the water. He was caught by a huge wave, lifted high in the air, and dropped about six metres to the rocks.(Photo by Wayne Joy)
A few kilometres down the coastal highway from Peggy’s Cove is Seabright, a village of just over 500 people. That’s where Station 55 of Halifax Regional Fire & Emergency Service is located. The department has 58 fire stations, staffed by about 400 career and 800 volunteer firefighters. Station 55 is first due at emergencies in a number of villages along that section of St. Margaret’s Bay, as well as Peggy’s Cove.

The station is staffed by two career members, a lieutenant and a firefighter, 10.5 hours a day, from 7 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. on weekdays. The rest of the time it is entirely a volunteer operation. If something goes wrong at Peggy’s Cove, Station 55 gets the page. The run is almost 20 minutes. And members have made that trip many times over the years.

It was around 6:20 p.m. on Nov. 6 that the tone came in for a man swept off the rocks at Peggy’s Cove. It was a stormy night; dark, very high winds, heavy rain.

None of the responders knew it yet, but by the time they arrived it would already be too late for the victim, whose body would be recovered more than a week later. But as events unfolded, two firefighters and an RCMP officer would find themselves in that position none of us ever wants to be in: to have to decide in an instant whether to attempt an extremely high risk rescue with practically no safety gear and no backup. That decision is made even more difficult when the person whose life is at stake is a fellow first responder.

Volunteer firefighter Greg Kutney, a first-year medical student at the Dalhousie Faculty of Medicine in Halifax, was driving Engine 55. Right behind him was Rescue 55 with firefighter Jason Sparkes on board. Rescue boats 56 (Black Point) and 58 (Lakeside) were also on the road. They were about 20 minutes behind the Seabright units.

RCMP Const. Chris Richard, who has been on the force for about four years, would arrive about the same time as the first-in trucks. Another RCMP constable, Scott Locke, would be about five minutes behind.

“We were laying out a plan in the truck,” recalls Kutney. “Once we got a better location on the victim we would radio the other units and tell them where to launch. Then, when we passed the government wharf [at Peggy’s Cove] and saw the waves, we knew we didn’t need any boats. There was no way to launch anything in those waves.”

On arrival, the firefighters were directed to the parking lot behind the Sou’Wester Restaurant. The waves were so high that water was flowing down the land side of the huge rocks several hundred feet away.

While they were still on the road, Sou’Wester manager John Campbell had taken the time to determine exactly where the victim was last seen. Grabbing some throw bags and life vests, Sparkes and Kutney, along with Const. Richard, headed toward the rocks, with Campbell guiding them.

Part way up, Kutney gave everybody life jackets. When they got to the top of the rocks, Campbell, who knew this water better than anyone else there, took one look at the waves and told them to stop.

Const. Richard didn’t hear him and continued on for a few feet. The others lost sight of Richard in the darkness and presumed he was checking along the ridge. Their focus was on the man who had been washed away.

Sparkes, a master seaman in the navy, used his spotlight to probe the ocean for any sign of the missing man. But what they saw in the water shocked them all. Reflecting back was the life jacket they had just given Const. Richard. A wave had taken him out and he was already 100 feet away.

“He was too far out,” says Sparkes. “We tried to use throw bags but it didn’t work. There was nothing we could do.”

But just then a large wave picked up the officer and threw him onto the rocks. When it receded, Richard was sprawled and injured on rocks some distance away and near the water. “I knew this was the one chance,” says Sparkes. “I figured if we don’t go for him now, he’s gone.”

The Atlantic Ocean was not going to wait while a crew was formed and outfitted, a plan formulated, a backup team put in place, and safety lines laid.

Since he was the closest, Sparkes raced to the Mountie. His plan was to lift Richard over a ledge to a higher boulder, then drag him to safer ground. But the officer was dead weight and Sparkes couldn’t lift him.

With another eight-metre wave about to crash down on top of them, Sparkes opted to stay with Richard. Sparkes used his body to pin the officer to the rocks, found a handhold, took a deep breath and hung on. The wave hammered them. He managed to keep his grip as the water receded. By then Kutney and Const. Locke, who had just arrived and didn’t even have a life jacket, were beside him. Together they got the injured officer over the ledge and started the long drag to the top of the rocks.

The fight with the ocean wasn’t over yet. Time and again the crew was knocked down by huge walls of water. Together they would shelter Richard as best they could and hang on to each other, trying not to be washed away. Then they would gain a few more feet up the slope between waves.

Other firefighters from Station 55 came over the top of the hill with a backboard and, thinking they were finally on high enough ground, the group tried to immobilize Richard, who was in severe pain. But another wave washed over them. They struggled higher up the slope and tried again, but were again hit by waves.

Finally they got clear of the water. They secured Richard to the backboard, and made the long, treacherous walk back down the rock face on the land side to the parking lot, where paramedics were waiting.

Const. Locke, firefighters Sparkes and Kutney, and several other members of the Station 55 crew, sustained bumps and bruises from being thrown around on the rocks but were otherwise all right.

There was one factor that worked in favour of the rescuers. While the waves hitting them were huge, they weren’t as big as the monster that took the policeman off the rocks in the first place.

“Normally they come in a series of low waves, then larger ones,” says Kutney. “We were lucky that when we got to him there was a series of smaller waves before the larger ones started again.”

Richard was treated by paramedics on the scene and then transported to hospital. He was later released but had not been able to return to work when this issue of Canadian Firefighter and EMS Quarterly went to press in December.

Station 55 volunteer Chief Kevin Smith, who joined the old Seabright Volunteer Fire Department about 24 years ago, has been on calls to Peggy’s Cove many times.

“Generally it’s a medical call or someone falls on the rocks,” he says. “But usually when you get swept off the rocks, you don’t come back.”

This rescue was the third water-related rescue call to Peggy’s Cove in 2010. Some years there aren’t any.

On Dec. 9, firefighters Sparkes and Kutney, and constables Locke and Richard, met at Peggy’s Cove for the first time since the storm. The four walked and climbed part way down the rocks and stood quietly as they looked at the spot, another nine metres below, where Richard had been thrown. Having been there that night myself and having seen the waves, it was hard to imagine how any of them had survived.

Even as Sparkes was making his way down to him, Richard was hit by several waves. If Sparkes had even been just a few more seconds getting to his side, there may not have been a rescue to make.

“I didn’t have anything left,” Richard says. “I knew the next wave would finish me.” 

John Giggey is a retired volunteer captain with Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency Service and a former senior editor with The Canadian Press. He now works with HRFE in public affairs and publishes the department’s in-house magazine, FeedLine.
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