Faced with a woman clinging to life in frigid Toronto Harbour, a group of officers formed a human chain to pull her to safety.
It was 1.59 a.m. on January 29, when 9-1-1 received a call from a woman who advised that her dog had jumped into Lake Ontario, along the boardwalk in the area of Merchants Wharf. She also indicated she may lower herself down the seawall to retrieve the dog.
Constables Ashley Pickford and Christopher Hawley were the first to the scene.
“We couldn’t see the lady anywhere, but we heard a faint yelling from the water further west, along the shoreline nearer to the bottom of Sherbourne St.,” she said.
By that time, Sergeant Craig Somers pulled up at the scene and was joined by Pickford and Hawley closer to where the call for help had been heard. The three officers were able to locate the woman through her cries for help in the pitch-black water, holding her small dog to her chest.
“She appeared to be very weak and in distress while clinging to her dog,” said Somers. “The outside temperature had reached -7 degrees and the lake still had visible ice formations floating in the water.”
The woman was about eight feet down at the bottom of a concrete seawall.
With time quickly running out, the officers acted before the Marine Unit and Toronto Fire and Paramedic Services arrived. A third police unit had also arrived on scene to assist.
Somers, along with Constables Hawley, Pickford, Brendon Langer and Andrew Corkill, tied off rope to a ship moored along the water’s edge. With her duty belt, coat, vest and shoes off, Pickford was lowered down the wall to a cross beam at water level by officers holding the rope and forming a human chain to the water.
“There was no hesitancy in doing that,” she said. “We were worried that the lady might not make it and something had to be done right away to get her out of the water.”
Pickford grabbed the dog and handed it up to the officers before reaching back for the woman, showing extraordinary strength in grabbing her left hand and hauling her upwards with the help of her leg.
With assistance from Constable Tom Zebrowski, who secured the stack of officers from being pulled into the water, the rescue happened without incident.
“Once she was pulled from the water, I took off my police coat and covered her with it until an ambulance showed up,” said Somers.
Hailen was very thankful for the officers intervention to save her and her 15-year-old Bichon Frise, Cleo, whom she couldn’t bear to see drown in front of her eyes.
She was rushed to hospital with hypothermia, while Corkill and Langer took her dog – Cleo – to a 24-hour clinic.
“When Cleo arrived at the vet hospital, her condition was critical to the point where the vet suggested the option of putting her down,” said Hailen. “She was in the ICU for four days to get the water out of her lungs from almost drowning.”
But the kind actions of everyone will always stay with me. I can’t express enough that every step of the way, I felt that we were in the best of hands and were going to be okay
The dog was reunited with her owner on February 2.
“Her appetite has started to come back and she enjoys most of her days by sleeping and resting in the sun,” Hailen said.
She’s extremely thankful to the officers for saving their lives, and was able to meet them all at 51 Division a week later to show her appreciation.
“I must thank Constable Pickford for risking her own life by venturing down and pulling us from the freezing water,” she said. “The beams of light from flashlights were in my face and I can’t remember any faces during the chaos. But the kind actions of everyone will always stay with me. I can’t express enough that every step of the way, I felt that we were in the best of hands and were going to be okay.”
Somers later said that it was a call he’d never forget. The officers worked together as a team with the best possible outcome, plus the date was easy to recall as he’d been working the midnight shift on his birthday. “What better a birthday gift than to be part of saving someone’s life,” he said.