The first sign of trouble was when Robert Deyo saw a 30-foot wall of water erupt around the car in front of him as it hit a flooded section of road.
Robert was on his way from Mission to drop off his wife, Debbie, at a home-care job in Abbotsford. It was about 12:30 p.m. on Sunday, and the two were headed east along Clayburn Road, just off the Abbotsford-Mission Highway.
Robert, a care aide at Mission Memorial Hospital’s extended care unit, was aware the area was known for flooding, but a barricade had been moved to the side and this was the quickest route to their destination.
They saw the Honda Civic ahead hit a flooded portion, sending the car into a counter-clockwise spin and smashing into a power pole on its passenger side. Pieces of the car flew off, and a big cloud of smoke billowed into the air.
The vehicle came to rest, facing in the opposite direction in a drainage ditch on the north side of the road.
“We gotta get in there!” Robert yelled to Debbie as he pulled up to the scene.
As he leaped out of the car, he tossed his cellphone to her so she could call 911.
The vehicle was slowly sinking. It was on its side, with the driver’s door facing up.
Robert rushed into the ditch. He is six feet tall, and the water came up to his neck.
“Anybody in there?!” he yelled.
The water was dark and muddy. Robert couldn’t see into the vehicle. He opened the driver’s door and frantically felt around with his hands, to no avail. He looked up and down the ditch, but couldn’t see anyone.
Another man showed up at the scene. The two moved around to the roof of the vehicle, and began pushing on the car.
They were finally able to find the victim, and pulled him to the surface. They turned him on his back and the man gasped for air.
The two rescuers moved him to the bank. By then, other people had stopped at the scene, and one of them was a nurse.
“He has an airway. Keep the airway open!” Robert told her.
But he was frantic that someone else could be in the water. He kept looking and helped emergency personnel when they arrived at the scene. Thermal imaging was used to scan the water, and no one else was found.
The victim was airlifted to hospital.
That night, Robert was plagued by the thought that someone had been left behind. But he was assured by police the next day that the victim, who had been identified, was the sole occupant.
The 21-year-old Abbotsford man, whose name has not been released, is in hospital with a serious head injury.
Robert, 52, has been unable to work due to the physical strain that his body suffered during the rescue, as well as the emotional trauma. He has sought counselling for post-traumatic stress.
He said he wouldn’t hesitate to help again. He has two sons who, at 23 and 27, are similar in age to the victim.
“I just hope someone would do that for my family,” he said, choking up.
Robert brushes off any references to himself as a hero.
“I think anybody that was able would do what they could do.”
Neither the other man who helped rescue the victim, nor the nurse who assisted at the scene wanted to be identified. Robert said he shared his story so that others might do the same in an emergency situation.
“You don’t go out that day thinking you’re going to save someone from a sinking car.”