A local man rescued two women and their dogs after their vehicle left the road and overturned in a water-filled ditch last week.
He first pulled the driver of the vehicle out and then, while checking for her dog, found another woman incapacitated in the back seat.
And then the frantic search for a baby.
Eric Benson was in the right place at the right time when he happened upon the scene.
"It was a fluke I was there to begin with," said Benson. "I don't ever take this route home but I had just dropped off some dog food for a friend who lives in the area."
He turned onto Evergreen Road off Peterson Road and saw a bunch of bystanders and cars pulled over, many on cell phones, and saw tail lights coming from the ditch.
"I thought 'Okay, it seems like that is under control' and I drove by slowly," he said. "Then as I got closer I saw the car was upside down and partially submerged in a very deep ditch."
Benson jumped out of his car and asked a friend who was a bystander if the driver was okay. The friend was disabled and told Benson the driver was still in the car, and he felt helpless that he could not do anything.
"I just jumped in and all that crossed my mind was, 'I hope there isn't six feet of mud down there,’ ” said Benson. "The water was freezing and a couple of feet deep and was backing up and getting deeper. The woman was on her knees screaming, 'I want out, I want out' repeatedly but I could not get the door open, it was jammed."
Benson was finally able to get the driver's window open and he turned off the ignition before helping her crawl out of the overturned car, through the icy water and up the approximately six- to eight-foot steep embankment.
"Someone called out and said she was on the phone to 911 and told me not to move her," he said. "If I didn't move her she was going to drown, so I did what I had to do. She was really disoriented. I asked her if anyone else was in the car and she said her dog was."
So Benson jumped back in the deep water-filled ditch and back into the overturned car to retrieve the dog.
He found a little white terrier swimming around.
Benson said he grabbed the dog and handed it up to a girl on the bank. He climbed back up out of the ditch and someone said there was another dog in the car.
"This is when it got really scary," he said. "It is pitch black in there, water up to my thighs, freezing, and I reach over the back seat to get the other dog and I felt a person slumped over in the back. Her eyes were open but she was unresponsive. So I had the dog in one hand and her in the other, I'm thinking okay, one more time."
Then he felt the first wave of raw panic run through his body. He saw a baby's car seat, upside down and empty.
"I yelled as loud as I could up to the bystanders and asked if there was a baby in the car," Benson said, but he wanted to be sure.
Benson started frantically feeling around in the cold, wet, dark car praying he didn't feel a little hand, head or booty.
"By this time an off-duty paramedic from Parksville had pulled over and helped me get the second woman up out of the ditch," he said. "I handed the second dog to someone just as fire, police and paramedics arrived."
Benson says the woman and her passenger looked to be in their late teens or very early twenties.
As he was sitting in the ambulance Benson realized for the first time that he had received several cuts while frantically looking for a baby, and that his boots were full of water. "Realizing there might have been a baby that I hadn't found in the car kept me awake that night," he said. "I kept thinking over and over what if I had found an infant under that freezing water. I kept imagining what that would have been like to feel a baby under the water."
Benson said that fireman checked the vehicle thoroughly and assured him he had gotten everyone out.
"I am fortunate that I work for Mental Health and Addictions so was able to debrief with someone right away," said Benson. "I was doing some Tuesday morning quarterbacking on this one, especially as I had heard one of the women had been choppered out to another hospital. I was thinking maybe I shouldn't have moved her. And I was trying to keep the other girl upright and out of the water while I looked for a baby, did I manage to keep the water away from her face?"
Benson said the debriefing has helped him put things in perspective.
When asked if he felt like a hero Benson said, "If you can do it, you do it. I had to get them out. I am just glad I was there."
Sgt. Deley of the Campbell River RCMP said in a press release that "the passenger went to hospital with a possible broken hand and the uninjured driver went to the RCMP detachment. The investigation revealed that the driver was impaired with blood alcohol results almost three times the legal limit"
The investigation is continuing.
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