Toronto police mounted a dramatic rescue in the city’s west-end on Tuesday night to save two men from a flooded elevator as the city was being drenched by heavy rain.
Emergency crews arrived at the scene at Alliance Avenue and Rockcliffe Boulevard in the Junction about six minutes after a frantic 911 call was made.
The elevator was stuck in the basement of a commercial building where Klever Freire and Gabriel Otrin worked and was almost filled with water when officers arrived at the scene.
The officers could hear the men calling for help from inside the flooded basement, which was under construction at the time of the storm.
Freire said as the water rose above their waists, they decided to break through the ceiling to get a cellphone signal and call for help.
“There was a period of time where Gabriel was praying and he thought that that might be it,” he said. “But I don’t know. At some point (we) just decided that that wasn’t going to be the moment, and we started punching through the panels and then we got a cellphone call through.”
Building owner Elliott Strashin said he and others had tried to pry the elevator door open but were unsuccessful.
“We just couldn’t budge the door,” he said. “We had several people with a long two-by-four trying to lever it open.
“So I ran down the stairs … I was going to dive in. But luckily for me the first responders had already gotten them out. They’d gone in themselves with crowbars and pried the door open and saved the day.”
While the building was located in 12 Division, most of the station’s officers were busy with other calls. Constables Ryan Barnett and Josh McSweeney from 11 Division were close by and responded thanks to what they call a lucky coincidence.
“There’s a lot of lucky factors,” said McSweeney. “We share a (radio frequency) band with 12 Division. We wouldn’t have known if it was another division. We‘d have no idea. And the fact that the call we just finished was literally right at the border of 12 Division near where that happened.”
Before they could get to the trapped men, the officers had to find their way through a locked door that led to the basement, which was also submerged.
“Once we started going down, we could see how deep it was because the door frame was only exposed about two inches,” said Barnett.
They were given a key and were able to feel their way to the lock underwater, get it open and locate the elevators.
“We can hear them inside screaming for help and saying that the water was getting too high,” said Barnett.
Freire and Otrin managed to keep their heads above the water by standing on handrails inside the elevator while the officers got a crowbar from workers on the main floor.
After a failed attempt with a long crowbar, McSweeney went back to get a shorter one that would provide better leverage. In that short span of time, he says, the water level rose by almost six inches.
“We may have had maybe five or 10 more minutes,” said McSweeney.
The water level had risen to six feet and there was only one foot of air space left by the time the men were rescued. On the other side, the officers say only about four to five inches of the elevator door was visible.
Using brute force, the officers managed to pry the door open and get Freire and Otrin out. Neither of the men were injured.
Both officers said there was no time to think of what may have happened if they failed.
“It’s very goal oriented. We know what we have to do and we just took it step by step. It’s the only way you can do it. There’s too many variables,” said Barnett.
“There’s no panic. We’re pretty confident in what we’re doing,” said McSweeney. “It didn’t really register … we were just looking at what we needed to do. You’re not thinking of ‘what ifs’ or if things are going to happen badly.”
On being called heroes, both officers say they were just doing their jobs.
“I think any officer in this situation would have done the exact same thing,” said Barnett, a 20 year veteran.
“It’s nice to be called a hero but that’s what we were supposed to be doing,” added McSweeney who has served on the force for 13 years.
The heavy rain caused flash flooding, street closures and several cars to be trapped in flooded underpasses, including one incident where the police marine unit rescued people from four cars trapped at a downtown underpass.
Environment Canada had issued a special weather statement, saying between 50 and 100 millimetres of rain was expected in some areas, particularly near the lakeshore.
The agency said more than 64 millimetres of rain had fallen at Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport just south of the downtown core in only two hours. By the time the rainfall has stopped, 72 millimetres had fallen.