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Baby rescued from Courtenay river clings to life

Father, a maintenance worker for Comox school district, is at son's side in Vancouver hospital
A team searches the Puntledge River for a woman and her son. They were found and pulled out of the water, but the mother died and her son remains in hospital.

As a Comox Valley father watches his infant son cling to life in a Vancouver hospital, emergency crews who rescued the newborn and his mother from a river Friday remain optimistic.


“We’re all hoping there can be a miracle for this father and son so that they can be reunited,” said Paul Berry, search manager for Comox Valley Search and Rescue.


The newborn’s 26-year-old mother died Friday night. Her husband, who works for the Comox Valley School District, is at his son’s side at B.C. Children’s Hospital, Berry said.


The baby is just seven months old. He is the couple’s only child, Berry said.


The mother’s death and the child’s critical condition have hit Comox Valley SAR technicians especially hard.


“One thing I’ve learned from this team is we always maintain a positive outlook ... that’s what sustains this group,” Berry said. “It’s been a really emotional weekend for the whole team.”


Comox Valley School District Superintendent Sherry Elwood would not release the father’s name but confirmed “Doug” is a member of the district’s maintenance crew, a member of the Canadian Union of Public Employees.


“Our hearts go out to him, his son and his family,” Elwood said. “We will support Doug in any way that we can.”


The school district is offering support today to the father’s work colleagues, “who will need time and assistance to process this unimaginable situation.”

“Most importantly right now we will respect Doug and his family's right to privacy as the days unfold,” Elwood said.


The district does not anticipate talking further today about their employee and his family.


“We recognize that that their right to grieve, to hope and to manage this terrible tragedy is paramount and far outweighs anyone's need to know anything other than the difficulties they are experiencing,” Elwood said. “We would ask everyone to protect the family in this way.


On Friday, when 911 calls from witnesses at 2:29 p.m. reported a mother and baby floating in the Puntledge River in downtown Courtenay, first responders rushed to the scene and launched a search by land, air and water.


“When you hear a mother and child are in the river, your adrenalin starts pumping,” said Berry. “Every police officer I’ve ever known was in attendance. Firemen were lining the banks of the shore in a huge rapid response.”


Volunteer search and rescue technicians ran from their work and classes, changed into their gear and raced to the river bank.


At least two civilians first on the scene had already failed in their attempts to pull the mother and baby from the water.


“It was very chaotic,” Berry said.


Witnesses reported seeing the infant floating face down and the mother bobbing in and out of sight in the rushing water.


Within about 25 minutes, the seven-month-old baby was spotted and pulled from the water. Firefighters and then paramedics performed CPR on the infant.


The child was taken to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Courtenay and flown to B.C. Children's Hospital in Vancouver. On Saturday night, the child remained in critical condition, said RCMP Cpl. Darren Lagan.


It was at that point that search and rescue technicians arrived and a large crowd had gathered on the river banks, Berry said.


With the noise of helicopter blades thumping overhead, boat propellers churning up the water and shouts from people on the shore, some emergency responders had to work hard to fight the distractions and stay focused to follow their training, Berry said.


Almost one hour and 45 minutes after she was first reported in the water, the infant’s mother was found submerged in a slow-moving and wide part of the river. She was pulled into a police boat.


“She was quite deep and only from the helicopter with an overhead vantage point would you be able to spot her against the bottom of the river,” said Berry.


The water was murky and cold, 6 C, he said. Berry was in his drysuit, snorkel and mask.


“Only when I was right over top of her was I able to view her.”


Cardiopulmonary resuscitation was performed on the woman all the way to the emergency ward of St. Joseph’s Hospital, Berry said.


“We like to think there’s always a chance, but she was in the water close to an hour and 45 minutes, so the chances are remote, but you do everything you can do,” Berry said.


The woman was pronounced dead in hospital at 6:55 p.m.


On Saturday night, search and rescue workers gathered for a critical-incident stress debriefing at their headquarters.


It’s a confidential process to help first responders identify how involvement in a traumatic incident might affect them emotionally, physically and psychologically and to support one another.


“There were lots of tears and second-guessing if we could have been faster or was there more we could do,” Berry said.


The search manager concludes the response from all emergency services “was swift and full-scale.” Comox Valley SAR volunteers arrived within 15 minutes of being called (after the baby had been recovered).


“We did everything we could do in recovering [the mother],” Berry said. He hopes the family finds some solace in having the mother’s body returned.


“I hope it allows them ... to say goodbye and answer some questions.”


Police do not know how and why the mother and infant ended up in the water Friday. They have concluded the pair were not pushed.


B.C. Coroners Service has taken over the investigation, promising to examine all possibilities “which could include anything from tragic fall to post-partum depression [and] psychosis.”

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