A Nelson Search and Rescue volunteer told a coroner’s inquest Wednesday that while members might have been able to reach Sheilah Sweatman, they couldn’t rescue her without putting themselves in danger.
Chris Armstrong, who trained Sweatman in swift water rescue and considered her a friend, said her death was the result of a “catastrophic series of events beyond my imagination.”
The site leader during the June 29, 2011 operation testified he could not have predicted the tragic outcome when his team tried to recover a submerged car from the Goat River south of Creston.
“What happened to Sheilah I was unable to foresee,” Armstrong said. “It had not occurred to me whatsoever that all of these things could happen in seconds.”
While attempting to attach a tow line to the vehicle, Sweatman got caught in a steel cable, inadvertently tethered between the car and her double-pontoon raft. She was pulled underwater and drowned.
Armstrong, a 15-year member of Nelson Search and Rescue and self-employed rescue professional, said the group decision to use the cable was approved by the search manager and RCMP.
“Sheilah and I talked about it at great length,” he said. “We had two people [in the raft] and felt we should be able to manage.”’
Everyone, including Sweatman, was comfortable with the decision, Armstrong testified. They felt they had minimized their exposure to the risk and had a four-step plan to prevent the raft and car from becoming linked via the cable.
“Sheilah came up to me and raised quite a few points,” Armstrong said. “She was confident … She and the rest of us felt it could be done safely.”
However, things went wrong when the submerged car began to move, pulling Sweatman with it. Despite grasping her firmly, her colleague on the raft was unable to hang on.
Armstrong called it the “worst scenario I’ve ever dealt with … One of my closest friends was dying. Sheila was in the worst possible place.”
Although the river was shallow in places, the spot where the car lay was among the deepest — estimated during the inquest at five to six feet (1.5 to 1.8 meters).
Armstrong said they had no way to cut the cable, although Sweatman apparently tried in vain with a knife on her belt. He described her as otherwise “panicked.”
While he admitted they may have been able to reach her, he doubted they would have been able to hold her head up or provide a snorkel. “It would have been all we could do to hang on with one hand. Maybe wrap around her, but not help her,” he said.
Two swimmers and a back-up raft tried unsuccessfully to reach her against the current while others threw ropes that Sweatman was unable to grab. Armstrong also waded into the river himself with hopes of freeing her, but turned back. He said the overturned vehicle, fast-moving water, cable, and rope all presented hazards.
Sweatman’s body was recovered the following day by another swift water team, using a similar rope and raft system. It took them a while to get her out of the water, but only a few minutes to untangle her.
Asked what recommendations he would have to prevent similar deaths, Armstrong said it had been “on my mind daily for 16 months.”
He suggested swift water training be standardized in BC to address inconsistencies in certification and that scientific standards be created for equipment so they don’t rely only on their experience in setting up rope systems.
Under cross-examination by Sweatman family lawyer Cameron Ward, Armstrong agreed Sheilah’s colleagues tried to reach her, but “were were acting with their heart, not with their head.”
Ward asked why someone didn’t drop in from upstream — where no one had been positioned — and float down to her.
“I’m sure it seems totally feasible to a layperson,” Armstrong said. “We could have made contact but it would be a serious hazard … If we swam to her, we could get trapped.”
Despite having equipment on hand, “you made no effort to access Sheilah and pull her head out of the water,” Ward charged.
“I decided it was not a good decision and did not,” Armstrong replied. “My experience told me not to.”
Ward also asked why a third boat wasn’t put in the water upstream of Sweatman. Armstrong said it crossed his mind, but he couldn’t think of a way to stabilize it.
Asked why the team didn’t wait for water levels to subside, given that it was a recovery mission, Armstrong said it was discussed, but the group felt comfortable they had the appropriate skills, the risk was low, and they were there anyway.
Ward further asked why they didn’t secure a pair of bolt cutters in case someone got caught in the wire. Armstrong says this was also discussed, but bolt cutters wouldn’t have done the job, which would have required a blowtorch or hacksaw.
Armstrong will resume his testimony Thursday.
Sweatman’s family has been highly critical of the planning for the original operation and attempts to rescue Sheilah once she was in distress.
“Cable was a hazard introduced to the system without any method of extrication,” her father Wynn told reporters. “Whether you could cut it with bolt cutters is almost beside the point. Why would you introduce it in the first place?”
Testimony was originally scheduled to wrap up tomorrow, but at least ten other witnesses remain to be called before the jury can begin deliberating on recommendations to prevent similar deaths.
Earlier Wednesday, a toxicologist testified that traces of THC — the active ingredient in marijuana — were found in Sweatman’s blood in post-mortem tests.
Dr. Walter Martz said it was difficult to accurately state how long it had been in her system, but probably wasn’t more than a day. He noted it was a relatively small amount and was unable to say if she was impaired by its use when she died.
Video request denied
Presiding coroner Matt Brown rejected an application from Global News and the CBC to allow them to broadcast excerpts from footage of the incident shot for the reality TV show Callout: Search and Rescue.
Brown said while case law supports disclosure in some circumstances, privacy concerns for both family members and searchers depicted in the video outweighed the public interest of releasing it to the media.