Looking back on that dark, chilly, snow-covered evening in February, Timothy Wiechers only has one regret. “Thinking about it now, I probably should have brought my coat and gloves with me,” joked the Geography graduate student.
Wiechers was recently honoured by the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) for his role in helping save the life of a young woman following a near fatal rollover along Highway 401.
It had been a mixture of rain and snow for most of the day when Wiechers was driving back to London around 9 p.m. Traffic was light. He was less than a minute from his exit when his evening changed.
“The road conditions were pretty crappy. It was just me and one other vehicle on the road,” he recalled. “Something just caught my eye because the car in front of me made this hard 45-degree angle turn right into the ditch. It took me a second to collect my thoughts, to realize what happened. Did I just see that?”
Wiechers immediately pulled over to see if he could help. It was pitch black and cars were now whizzing by. He phoned OPP to report the accident before checking on the driver and any passengers.
“At this point, I had no idea how severe it was. But when I saw the car sitting in a pool of water on its roof, things escalated quickly,” he said.
As he slid down the embankment towards the vehicle, he yelled at them so they could hear me, telling them the police were on the way and it was going to be OK.
When the first officer arrived, Wiechers still had no idea how many passengers were in the vehicle, which, at this point was almost completely submerged.
“The officer immediately went into emergency mode. The first thing I remember is he ripped two flares off with his mouth and threw them on the highway,” Wiechers said. “I knew I had to let them do their job, but I also wanted to help. One officer handed me his light, so I was holding that while he was trying to get into the vehicle using a crowbar and hammer. Basically, we felt hopeless at this time.”
As more first responders arrived, the decision was made to tow the car out in order to get to those still inside. As the only witness to the crash, Wiechers was taken to one of the police cruisers to give his statement. Police then informed him the person in the vehicle, a young woman, was on her way to hospital but, more than likely, was not going to make it
“I was having to come to terms with this,” Wiechers said. “She was submerged for more than 20 minutes, but to me, it seemed like an hour from the time I made the phone call, to the first officer getting there, to the point she was pulled out of the water. It seemed like forever. It was a hopeless feeling.”
Police thanked Wiechers and let him know if he had any questions, or needed to talk to anyone, to call them. It was a difficult time, he admitted, but talking it out with his mother and others helped him deal with the experience.
Police got in touch with him a couple of weeks later. He expected them to have more questions, instead they let him know the woman was still in hospital, but she was going to pull through.
“I was pretty shocked. I was there and saw her underwater for that amount of time and I can’t believe she was alive. Hearing that was awesome,” said Wiechers, who was also told by police her husband was posting updates on his Facebook page, if he cared to find out more.
“That was helpful for me, to be able to check on her when I wanted. At that point, it hit home. I could now see photos of her, see she had a family and husband and people who loved her. It became more real.”
At the OPP awards ceremony, those pictures came to life as Wiechers met her, in person, for the first time.
“I didn’t know what to expect, but when I got there, the whole gang (police, fire, paramedics) were there,” he said. “It was amazing to see her. I didn’t know what to say. All the emotions that were running through my mind, seeing her and her husband. Just hearing her speak, you’d have no idea she was so close to death earlier this year.”
Wiechers said, while he appreciates the recognition, the success of the rescue is a testament to the teamwork of total strangers.
“It’s like links in a chain. I may have been the first link, but everyone played a key role and, thankfully, it worked out,” he said.