A dramatic rescue effort to pull a woman and her infant son from a frigid Vancouver Island river has ended in tragedy, as the 26-year-old mother has died.
Comox Valley RCMP say the woman was pronounced dead at hospital just before 7 p.m. Friday, after being pulled from the chilly Puntledge River hours earlier.
Her seven-month-old son has been airlifted to B.C. Children’s Hospital in Vancouver, where he remains in critical condition.
“Our heartfelt sympathies go out to this family,” said Staff Sgt. Kevin Mazur in a statement issued Saturday.
“Based on the evidence and information we have gathered so far, there is no indication that any third party was involved in the pair entering the water,” Mazur said.
Two witnesses called police around 2:30 p.m. after they spotted the pair floating down the fast-flowing river near Lewis Park and the Condensory Bridge in downtown Courtenay, said Comox Valley RCMP spokesman Const. Don Sinclair. It not clear if the woman and child fell from the bridge or how long they had been in the water.
Officers arrived within minutes and deployed a boat and a helicopter. Comox Valley search and rescue had two or three boats in the water, and Courtenay Fire also responded, said Sinclair.
“It was a very big undertaking, a great response by all of our emergency crews in the area,” he said by phone on Saturday.
He said helicopter crews first spotted the baby and he was rescued just before 3 p.m. and taken to hospital. Dozens of people in Lewis Park looked on as emergency crews tried desperately to revive the child before he was air-lifted to B.C. Children’s Hospital.
But the mother had disappeared under the churning waters, and she was not pulled out until 4:12 p.m.
The massive rescue effort drew a large crowd of bystanders, with more than 50 people watching the search unfold, said Sinclair.
Jaime Libby, who was walking nearby, was among the first to notice the pair.
“They were floating in the water,” said Libby. “I saw the child face down in the river. The woman was bobbing up and down. She would surface and then go down.”
Not knowing what to do, Libby hailed a couple of vehicles asking for help. Doug Bams stopped to find out what was wrong. Libby pointed to the woman and child in the water.
Bams dashed down to the side of the river to try to grab the woman. But he lost her when she went under.
“She would come up and down,” Bams recalled. “I think it was still in the shallow part of the river. Then she never surfaced again.”
Another man jumped in the river, swimming frantically to try to save them, but could not get to them.
Once the woman was found, she was rushed to St. Joseph’s General Hospital in Courtenay. Despite the efforts of multiple medical workers, she was pronounced dead at 6:55 p.m.
There is still no indication of how the pair wound up in the water, but a vehicle has been found parked near the Condensory Bridge that officers believe belongs to the woman, said Sinclair.
He said the mother and son have been identified and next-of-kin have been notified, but their names are not being released.
The B.C. Coroners Service has taken the lead in the investigation, with ongoing assistance from the Comox Valley RCMP.
Investigators are asking anyone who may have seen the pair near or in the water before 2:40 p.m. on Friday to come forward. Sinclair said on Saturday afternoon that no one had contacted the detachment yet, to his knowledge.
He said the Puntledge River is a mountain-fed river, so the water on Friday was frigid. He reminded Comox Valley residents to practise water safety.
“Stay away from the river. It’s moving extremely fast and it’s very cold,” he said.
Sinclair said police don’t know how the woman and child ended up in the water.
“We’re still trying to piece this together,” he said. “We don’t know where she was when she went in.”