Caught on camera: RCMP officer dives into icy river to rescue woman
Jeff Lagerquist, CTVNews.ca
Published Saturday, March 11, 2017 5:05PM EST
Last Updated Saturday, March 11, 2017 5:16PM EST
RCMP Const. Justin Lee didn’t think twice before diving fully clothed into the icy waters of the Fraser River to save a woman.
The dramatic rescue, which was caught on video by a bystander, is being hailed an act of heroism as well as a reminder of the dangers officers face in the line duty.
Lee raced to the scene as soon as he heard the call about a woman in distress on the Arthur Laing Bridge, driving against traffic with the sirens blaring. He was the first to arrive at the riverbank.
"By the time I could see the woman in the water, she was holding on to a log, so she needed help. And that's just when something kicks in inside you, that you have to help somebody who's in distress,” Lee told CTV Vancouver.
With adrenaline coursing in anticipation of the shock from the frigid waters, he dropped his duty belt and phone, grabbed a lifejacket from his cruiser as another Mountie arrived. Lee snatched a second lifejacket, and dove in.
“(It’s) that type of cold that as soon as you get in the water, it seizes your breath,” he said.
Weighed down by his heavy boots and waterlogged clothing while fighting the bitter cold, he swam toward the woman.
"It seemed like I was kicking frantically and I wasn't going anywhere," said Lee.
The unidentified women released the log, welcoming Lee’s rescue, before the pair returned to shore as the Coast Guard arrived.
Lee says he it felt like he was in the water for 90 seconds -- it was closer to 10 minutes.
With hypothermia setting in, the nine-year service veteran called his wife while on the way to hospital.
“I didn't want (her) to hear (about it) from another source. As soon as I heard her voice on the phone, I just lost it,” he said.
“I didn't really expect that. But just hearing the loved one's voice just brought up these emotions that you've suppressed while you're focusing on the task. As soon as I talked to my wife, it all just came out."
British Columbia Professional Firefighters Association President Gord Ditchburn says first responders are often overcome with emotion after putting their lives on the line, a burden they sometimes carry with them into their off-duty lives.
“It can be very tough. Our members are expected to act in the community in a very professional manner, dealing with all kinds of life safety issues, and then they're expected to go home and be that happy-go-lucky guy, look after his kids and his wife -- and it's a struggle because you've seen and been a part of so many bad things during your day."
RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson cited mental health among several serious internal “challenges” facing the force in a letter announcing his retirement after nearly four-decades in law enforcement.
“We will continue to build, expand and improve our nascent mental health strategy to preserve and restore our employee’s mental and emotional wellness,” he wrote earlier this month.
In 2014, the force formally delved into the issues of suicide and mental health within its ranks.
A five-year mental health initiative launched by then- assistant RCMP commissioner Gilles Moreau found significant stigma associated with seeking help for mental health issues, and aimed to encourage officers to seek assistance if they are in need.
Ditchburn says helping veterans with years’ worth of trauma is a priority, but there’s also a growing movement to better prepare new recruits for the realities of the job.
“In a 30-year career -- it's like going up the side of a mountain with a backpack. As you go to these various calls, deal with the issues, you're adding stones to that backpack and at some point your backpack gets either full or it breaks and you've got to deal with the issues.”
For Lee, who had been working traffic duty just prior to receiving the fateful call, dealing with heart pounding rescues and the emotional consequences is simply part of the job.
“It's just what a police officer does, when they put on the uniform and go out on the road,” he said. “I think most of my colleagues in my position would do the same thing.”
With a report from CTV Vancouver’s Penny Daflos