April 6 was a good day for firefighter Brian McRae.
The sun was hot, the beach beautiful and the ocean warm. There was even a good swell breaking to body surf in, unusual for the area. McRae, who was raised in the Neepawa area, and fellow Calgary Fire Department 'A'-shifters Mark Bernardi, Darren Pauluk, and Dean Foley were in Cuba to help their friend, Senior Nozzleman Blaine Worobitz, celebrate his marriage to Leah.
Brian was an experienced competitive swimmer in his university days, a medallist with the national junior swim team, so the ocean was home to him.
After spending half the day body-surfing and swimming in the Caribbean, McRae and the other firefighters from Calgary decided to clean up and rent scooters for the short hop into the tourist town of Varadera. Before meeting up with his buddies, McRae had one last thing to do on the beach.
"I forgot my sandals at the beach," McRae said. "So, I showered, dressed and quickly ran back down there, hoping I wouldn't miss the guys at the agreed meeting spot."
But when he got to the beach, he found something he hadn't bargained on. People were standing pointing out to sea and McRae felt that "weird energy" that most have felt in an emergency — a feeling of anxiety and helplessness, that 'somebody-do-something' vibe from the civilian onlookers.
Looking out past the surf line, McRae saw a person waving and gesturing for help. He was some 200 metres out, far past the point that even strong swimmers like McRae would dare to go. He was caught in what McRae refers to as 'washing-machine' between the breaking eight-foot swells and the open sea, being pulled back-and-forth by the undertow and gradually getting further and further from shore.
"My first thought was that I was going to miss the trip to Varadera," admits McRae. "But I couldn't just turn away. I had to help." He quickly peeled off his clothes — too much drag for swimming — and ran into the surf. Farther down the beach, Blaine Worobitz also struck out for the drowning man, but had much further to go from his angle.
His first few strokes surprised him.
"I'd been feeling really good all morning, swimming strongly," McRae said. "But I quickly realized that my arms were tired — it wasn't going to be an easy swim."
Nonetheless, he powered through the surf, sticking his head up to keep his eyes on the foundering man. He estimates that in the pool, he can cover 200 metres in about two minutes. Fighting the surf, he thinks that it took him a little longer to reach the helpless man.
"He was so exhausted, he couldn't even talk, not a word. He had that dull look of a person on the verge of giving up," McRae said.
"I'm not trained as a lifeguard, so I didn't have any fancy holds to use. I just grabbed him under the arm and began towing him to shore."
Minutes later they were safely on the beach, and the man thanked McRae and shook his hand. Without further adieu, McRae grabbed his clothes and headed out to meet his buddies. No fanfare, no glory, just do the job and get going. Just like at home, when a fire crew makes an extrication or puts out the fire, there was no glory-seeking, Only the satisfaction of a job well done, a life saved.
The story would end there but for one exceptional fact: This was McRae's second rescue of the day! Because earlier that day, at about 11 a.m, McRae had swam into the surf to rescue another man who had become trapped in the backwash of the waves.
"We met these guys from Toronto, a paramedic and a RCMP constable, in the hotel the night before," McRae said. "They were good guys and we got to know them a bit. When I saw them shouting and waving from out there I thought they were just saying hello."
But he soon realized that they were in trouble with the second man trying to hold his buddy up in the relentless undertow.
"Several of us swam out to them, but I got there first. The victim was done in, glassy-eyed and exhausted, unable to help himself. His buddy was also exhausted and couldn't have held on much longer. It was definitely a life-or-death situation." said McRae.
"I grabbed him under the arm and began to sort of modified sidestroke, and towed him to shore," he said.
Everyone made it in safely and the guys continued their fun in the sun without giving much thought to the event.
That evening, the fortunate victim of the second rescue approached McRae in the restaurant to tearfully thank him again.
"It was emotional," said McRae. "The days events were beginning to sink in to me."
The man, a 34-year-old graphic designer from Toronto, was alive only because McRae had forgotten his sandals and gone back down to the beach.
This story wouldn't have been written if firefighter Mark Bernadi hadn't forwarded it up the chain of command when they returned home. McRae would have filed it under "Stories from Blaine's wedding," and left it at that.
Rightfully however, these exceptional rescues have become public and McRae was recognized by Fire Chief Bruce Burrell in a ceremony at CFD headquarters earlier this year.
-Courtesy Claudelle Seguin
Calgary Fire Department