'We had minutes left': Men rescued from flooded Toronto elevator on harrowing close call
Chris Fox and Chris herhalt, CTV News Toronto
Published Wednesday, August 8, 2018 2:08PM EDT
Last Updated Wednesday, August 8, 2018 6:27PM EDT
Two men who were rescued from a flooded elevator in the city’s west end on Tuesday night say that they were minutes away from being completely submerged by the rising waters.
The harrowing ordeal occurred in an elevator that became stuck in the basement of a building near Alliance Avenue and Rockcliffe Boulevard amid torrential rainfall.
Klever Friere, who is the CEO of a drone startup that is located in the building, told reporters on Wednesday that he and co-worker Gabriel Otrin took the elevator to a basement garage to move his SUV after being informed by building staff that the parking area was starting to flood.
He said that as the elevator reached the basement area; it immediately started to fill up with flood waters, reaching waist-height within minutes and then continuing to rise after that.
Ortin said that “within the first five minutes it was pretty clear what was going to happen,” so he began praying, a process which he said gave him the strength he needed to remain calm.
Friere said that he and Ortin then attempted to force the doors open but quickly realized that their efforts would be futile. He said that at that point they decided that forcing a ceiling panel open in an attempt to get cell service would be their “last hope.”
“We were trying to find emergency latches, instructions on how to get out and we were looking for things we could use for leverage to force the doors open but we weren’t able to find any instructions inside the elevator and the emergency phone was dead because of the water coming through, so our last hope was finding a way to get a cell signal,” he said. “At some point we just decided that this wasn’t going to be it and we started punching through the panels.”
Put on hold by 911 at first
Friere said that he and Ortin initially stood on the elevator’s hand rails as the flood waters rushed in but later had to break them off and use them to force open the ceiling panel.
He said that by repeatedly punching and pushing at the panel they were eventually able to create enough of an opening to put a cell phone through and get service in order to call 911 but were put on hold for a few agonizing minutes at first.
“Finally we got reception and then we were on hold,” Friere said. “The first time we had a moment of relief was when we heard there was somebody actually on the other side of the door.”
Just a short jaunt down the street, Constables Ryan Barnett and Josh McSweeney got the call to give the two men some help.
“Nobody’s going to be able to get there soon,” McSweeney said he recalled thinking at the time. “So we went.”
They got to the building and peered down into the elevator shaft where the men were trapped.
“We could see the elevator at the bottom of the shaft – the (elevator’s) hatch could only be opened four or five inches and they couldn’t get out,” Barnett said.
“So we just took our vests off and our guns and went in the water.”
The hatch on the top of the elevator was locked, so the officers went to the main door, feeling around for where they could pry it open.
“We could hear them screaming for help. We started pulling the door open but it the pressure was too great,” Barnett said.
With the help of two crowbars that workers at the building found nearby, they eventually pried open two separate layers of elevator door and got to the trapped men.
Barnett said they worked more or less silently, and it was hard to convey any words to the trapped men.
“It was very hard to hear them already because the door was very thick,” he said.
Friere said that by the time police pried the doors of the elevator open using a crowbar, the water was at his neck.
“We may have had five or ten more minutes,” McSweeney said. But he stressed that while he and Barnett were pulling the doors apart, they weren’t thinking about the worst that could happen.
“You’re not thinking of what-ifs or if things are going to happen badly.”
McSweeney said one of the two men they rescued was in shock. Despite being a lifeguard, he needed them to carry them to higher ground. Barnett said he apologized profusely for not being able to power himself out of the water.
Friere said that that at that point he was thinking about his 13-year-old daughter, who he was supposed to take to a movie earlier that night but couldn’t due to some issues that came up at work.
“I was using the elevator buttons as a reference for how quickly the water was rising. We probably had three of four minutes left before it was full,” he said. “In that moment you do think about the people that are going to be affected if something happens to you.”
Ortin said that it probably took about five minutes before he and Friere were able to force open the panel and call 911.
He said that he was forcing the panel open with his hands at first but at some point started using his head as it “was more effective.”
He said that the elevator’s emergency telecommunications did start working at some point during this but almost immediately shorted out as the waters rose to the level of the speaker.
He said that he is lucky to have gotten out of the elevator alive and plans to track down the officers that rescued him to express his gratitude.
“I can’t thank them enough. I would like to meet them some day and shake their hand,” he said.
After the rescue was finished, Barnett said he and McSweeney finished their shift, and started washing their clothes, which were soaked with dirty water.
Barnett said he went to bed but couldn’t sleep.
“It feels good – I went to bed but I couldn’t sleep because I was very excited and happy. It was why we do this job for.”
Both officers said they didn’t need any special thanks from Friere or Ortin.
“Police officers do this for this reason,” McSweeney said.