Dennis and Debbie Czerniak may not consider themselves heroes, but they are nothing less in the eyes of Bruce Lockhart after he and family members were rescued on Sunday by the Enderby couple from the frigid waters of Shuswap Lake.
On the morning of April 16, Lockhart set out on the lake with his son and son-in-law for a day of fishing.
At approximately 11:30 a.m., they were motoring across the lake opposite of Murdock Point (near Old Town Bay) when, by “happenstance,” the boat took on water and quickly became swamped.
“The boys were pretty scared… I assured them we would be OK and get through it,” said Lockhart. “The boat was getting pulled under water because they were trying to climb on top. You know, your reaction is to try to get out of the water.”
The water’s temperature at the time was around 3 C.
Lockhart said they could see people fishing in boats on the other side of the lake, but no one seemed to hear their calls for help. Meanwhile, their boat submerged to where only the bow was above water, and then resurfaced upside down.
Lockhart said he realized they had to calm down and somebody had to take charge.
“Eventually, I thought it would be best if we could get the boat upright and potentially get it bailed out,” said Lockhart. “I got the boys to help and we got the boat upright, though half under water. I asked Dave to take the engine off, to drop the engine, because it was weighting down the back of the boat. He was able to release the engine and the boat floated up high enough that my son Rob was able to get into it.”
The task of bailing out the boat quickly proved futile and, after about 20 minutes of exposure to the icy water, Lockhart was struck by a grim realization.
“I had to face a certain reality, that I would lose these two dear boys, that they would have to witness the death of a family member and, in all likelihood die alone on the lake,” said Lockhart. “I thought of my wife mourning the loss of a son and my daughter, her husband.”
Meanwhile, the Czerniaks were in their boat, a Boston Whaler, fishing near other boats off Murdock Point.
At one point, through the sound of boat motors, Dennis said he and Debbie began hearing a noise. Unable to identify it as voices, they ignored it at first. After about five minutes, though, the Czerniaks concluded something was wrong.
“Just as we shut the motor off, we heard a noise across the water that at first resembled ‘help,’ said Dennis. “We knew somebody was in trouble somewhere, but couldn’t see anything because we were at this end of the lake, and it appeared to come from the opposite end of the lake.”
The Czerniaks reeled in their lines and Dennis shouted, “We’re coming!”
Eventually, the Czerniak’s spotted what looked like debris in the water. As they got closer, they saw the boat and the three men, one inside and two still in the water, clinging to the stern.
“We did a quick risk assessment there, realized what was floating around in the water,” said Dennis. “I asked my wife to throw them a lifeline, which they actually didn’t use at that time. They were clinging to the side of the boat. I said, ‘don’t let go.’ Because they had been in the water for approximately – they said 15 minutes, but they were definitely at their wits end.”
The Czerniaks then began the process of retrieving the men, beginning with Lockhart, who Dennis said appeared to be in the most desperate condition. Soon after they were able to pull the other two men aboard.
There was little talk as the Czerniaks transported the three men to shore in Sicamous, apart from a call Debbie had made to 911. When they arrived, they were greeted by Sicamous RCMP and other fisherman, all of whom helped out as they could.
“We want to acknowledge the RCMP officer and fishermen on the wharf who helped us out of our wet clothes, literally lent us the shirts off their backs and guided us to the ambulance. We will not forget your kindness,” said Lockhart.
A police report states the men were treated for hypothermia and later released from hospital in Salmon Arm.
“On this particular day, these individuals were very fortunate to have been rescued in such dire circumstances,” said RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Dan Moskaluk, adding the men had been wearing their lifejackets. “This incident is a strong reminder of how important it is to practice safe boating and always be prepared for the worst possible scenario whether you are the rescuee or rescuer.”
Lockhart is grateful for the care and attention he and his family received by attending paramedics and hospital staff.
As the men were being cared for on land, the Czerniaks returned to where they found them to collect the boat and everything else that was still afloat. Dennis said he didn’t want other boaters to come across it and think the worst. All the items were turned in to the RCMP.
Reflecting on the incident, Dennis believes there was more than one miracle that occurred Sunday.
“There was nobody around, they had no way of getting to shore, that was the big thing,” said Dennis. “So I don’t know what would have happened in another five or 10 minutes? You know, I don’t know how we heard that, to be quite honest with you… everything could have been ignored so easily there, I don’t know. But it turned out good, thank God.”
Lockhart said he and his sons are still recovering from the incident, and that they are indebted to the Czerniaks for the care and attention.
“Dennis Czerniak and his wife are heroes to my family,” said Lockhart. “They averted a disaster. Words cannot express my gratitude to them for coming to our rescue and saving those boys. Our family is whole, thanks to them, their actions and quick thinking.”