A casual glance in the rearview mirror led a young Fernie couple rushing to help Richard Altvater save his family.
On December 1 the couple (a boyfriend and girlfriend) were driving home from Kimberley on Hwy 3. The roads were slushy with two tire tracks and a berm in the middle of the road so they were driving below the speed limit at 85 kms/hr. They were the only ones on the road until the girlfriend noticed a minivan travelling behind them in the rearview mirror. She glanced in her rearview mirror again in time to see the van launch off to the right of the highway and begin to lift as if it was about to flip. At 1:54 pm the boyfriend called Emergency Medical Services (EMS) before they had even turned their car around. They had no idea what they would find when they arrived at the accident scene. EMS had the boyfriend relay the accident location, while the couple followed the tire tracks in the snow.
They found the vehicle upside down in a beaver pond eight kilometers west of Fernie; it had broken through the ice and the engine was off.
It was all reaction at that point.
The boyfriend tossed the phone at his girlfriend and he ran down the bank breaking through the ice into waist deep water. He fought his way to the van, going to the passenger side first as it was higher out of the water and seemed the best chance to enter.
The girlfriend started flagging down traffic passing by on the highway. A mother and daughter stopped, so the girlfriend gave them the phone to continue relaying information to EMS. Then she made her way to the van too.
The boyfriend went to the front passenger door first but it wouldn’t open. The door handle was submerged in the black and murky water.
He tried the passenger sliding door and it opened all the way. The van was full of water except for a six-inch air pocket at the top. He could see Richard who had managed his way into the back. He was yelling that he had a wife and three kids in the van.
“There was zero visibility in the water so it was crucial that the father could communicate that to us because we couldn’t see a thing,” said the boyfriend. Again the boyfriend tried the front passenger door but it was stuck with all the mud. He went back to the back passenger side and “suddenly there was a little girl in my arms who was scared and in shock. Her dad must have gotten her free”. The boyfriend gave the little girl to his girlfriend who brought the child up the steep bank where she gave the girl her down jacket and left her in the safety of a warm truck with a family who had stopped.
“The dad never gave up,” said the boyfriend. “Richard couldn’t feel his hands anymore but we kept trying. He must have unbuckled his kids.”
The boyfriend reached into the water with his arms as far as he could with water up to his neck when suddenly a boy was in his arms. He could see the boy was trying to breath as he carried him to shore wiping away the water coming out of his mouth. He passed the boy to his girlfriend who cleared the child’s airway, as she knew he had been under water for a while.
“I didn’t have time to think,” said the girlfriend. “Autopilot turned on. I needed to make sure each person was safe before leaving them. When one was OK, then I could go back (to the van).”
The boyfriend called out for a knife to the several people who had stopped by then.
He ran back down to the van and cut the front passenger seatbelt by reaching around from behind the seat. He still couldn’t feel anyone in the dark water. He knew then he needed to get the passenger door open.
“I started yelling for help to the people on the shore and two men rushed into the water to assist me,” said the boyfriend.
The three men pulled on the door in unison as the boyfriend called out “one, two, three, pull” over and over, heaving the door open inch by inch until it was wide enough to reach inside. He finally reached the mother, Kunthea Altvater, and carried her to shore and up the steep slippery bank to the roadside. The couple performed two person CPR on her for approximately five minutes until EMS arrived.
The girlfriend went in the ambulance continuing with assisted breathing on the mother, arriving at the Elk Valley Hospital at 2:35 pm. The boyfriend stayed to help EMS package the little boys on to spine boards and into the ambulances. Eventually he changed into a dry set of clothes he had in their car. He was shaking violently and sat in the car to warm up before driving himself to the Elk Valley Hospital in Fernie to pick up his girlfriend. Then they drove home.
“We’re so thankful that we do have first aid training and feel good that we could help,” said the couple. They both have Occupational First Aid Level 3.
Looking back at the incident four days later, the couple had a very clear reflection of the traumatic event.
“The role of the father was crucial,” they said. “He (Richard) told us how many people were in the van so we knew who to look for and EMS could send several more ambulances and resources immediately. Plus the father’s familiarity with the van made all the difference. He was able to open the back door, pull the luggage out and unclip the rear seat to get at the youngest child in his car seat.
“So many people gave assistance that day. People at the side of the road had blankets and clothes; the mother and daughter speaking with EMS.”
“We don’t want the baggage of the press,” added the girlfriend. “This is a time to respect the loss the Altvater family has endured.”
Hearing that representatives from the B.C. Humane Society and the B.C. Yukon Branch of the Lifesaving Society feel the couple should be awarded for their bravery the boyfriend responded, “It’s an action; anybody could and should do it. It’s a tough time for the (Altvater) family and that’s what the focus should be.”
Sadly, Kunthea passed away after she arrived at the Elk Valley Hospital. Richard and their seven-year-old daughter Rachelle were treated for hypothermia and minor injuries at the Sparwood hospital and released. The two younger boys, Alex and Ben, were transported to Alberta Children’s Hospital in Calgary by air ambulance in severe condition. Four-year-old Ben has since been transported to an Edmonton hospital and remains in a medical induced coma. The Altvater family is from Coaldale, Alberta.