Forget that saying about three times being the charm. For this rescue, it was the fourth attempt that was a true lifesaver.
With his elderly neighbour trapped in a submerged tractor in the Ottawa River on Christmas Eve of 2017, Christopher Gascon didn’t stop to think of his own safety. Instead, the Lefaivre resident repeatedly dove down into the water through a hole in the ice until he was able to open the cab and pull his friend out.
Gascon was honored by Canada’s Governor General Mary Simon on Monday, December 13, along with 22 other Canadians, in a special ceremony at Rideau Hall to recognize extraordinary people and their remarkable contributions to Canada. The 37-year-old was one of six recipients of the Governor General’s Medal of Bravery, which celebrates courageous individuals who have risked their lives in order to try to save someone in imminent danger.
The honour came as a surprise to the humble hero, who was unaware that he had been nominated by a neighbour who felt his feat of bravery deserved recognition.
“I wasn’t expecting that – nobody knew too much about it.”
On December 24, 2017, Gascon had just finished up some work on his property, located on the banks of the Ottawa River in Lefaivre, when he decided to hop on his snowmobile and pay a visit to a nearby friend. His neighbour, Richard Piché, had for 30 years maintained an ice bridge across the Ottawa River during the winter months, just east of the summer ferry crossing in Lefaivre.
Over the previous several days, Gascon had watched as Piché took his tractor further out onto the still-thickening ice of the Ottawa River. But on Christmas Eve, his elderly neighbour miscalculated and went out too far on the thin ice.
“I had just arrived to go see him and his wife said ‘Richard just sank into the river with the tractor’,” recalls Gascon, who took a moment to digest the information before racing his machine to where the tractor had gone through the ice.
“I was at the top of the hill (about 150 metres from the river’s edge) and he had already been in the water for a minute or two. In my head, when I went down I thought ‘oh he’s probably on the side hanging on’. But when I arrived there, it was only water and I couldn’t see anything.”
Gascon began yelling for Piché – hoping his friend would emerge through the hole in the ice. He thought perhaps the experienced tractor operator had escaped the enclosed cab and was trapped under the ice.
“Adrenaline kicked in and I just jumped in,” Gascon said, recalling his immediate decision to jump through a hole in the ice in -25 C temperatures.
Finding the tractor completely submerged in about four metres of water, once, twice, three times, Gascon had struggled to find a way to open the cab. At the brink of exhaustion, he told Piché’s wife, who was on the side yelling for her husband, that he would make one more attempt.
“I couldn’t feel anything – I was just trying to find the handle to the door of the tractor to pull him out. The fourth time, I managed to get the handle.”
Gascon was able to pull his friend out and bring him up to the surface, pushing him onto the thin ice before he climbed out himself. With Piché unresponsive, his rescuer immediately began CPR. Miraculously, after a couple of minutes, Piché began to cough and vomit up water. With the help of a bystander, Gascon brought the revived man to a nearby garage, from which he was transported to hospital.
“He was dead (when he was pulled out),” Gascon says, noting the cold water is the only thing that allowed his friend to be revived. “The doctors said because the water was so cold, it slowed down the heart.”
Although proud of the medal he received from Canada’s Governor General, the 37-year-old Lefaivre resident and married father of two remains humble about his heroism. The daring rescue received no media coverage at the time and had Gascon’s neighbour not nominated him for the award, it would have remained known to only a few people.
“It wasn’t me – I was out of it,” says the modest hero. “I’m not the guy that would have jumped in the cold water.”
Gascon swam competitively in his teens, and remains a strong swimmer, which he says helped him tremendously in the rescue. He recalls being exhausted later that night, as he celebrated Christmas Eve with his family.
“I remember it was December 24th and that night at nine o’clock I was the first one to go to sleep. We had a Christmas party, but I was completely drained out.”
Sadly, Richard Piché passed away from cancer just a year and a half after being rescued from the icy waters of the Ottawa River. Gascon thinks of his elderly friend often, and is appreciative of the extra time they got to spend together.
“He was a friend who was a lot older than me, but I was with him every second day,” Gascon says. “I had to try.”
The full list of honours recipients can be found here https://www.gg.ca/en/list-honours-recipients-december-2021 .