Submerged Elevator Rescue

By Kevin Masterman, Toronto Police Service Published: 5:01 p.m. August 8, 2018
Updated: 11:16 a.m. August 9, 2018

A pair of officers managed to pry open an elevator door while treading water, freeing two men who were just minutes from drowning.

Two men in TPS uniform
Constables Josh Mc Sweeney and Ryan Barnett rescued two men trapped in an elevator submerged in water

The two men had taken an elevator into the basement of the Alliance Ave. building to move their cars after they were told the basement parking was flooding because of the overflowing nearby Black Creek late Tuesday night.

They immediately found themselves in rising water and trapped in the elevator on a night where emergency responders were being called for flooding throughout the city that was trapping cars and even streetcars in underpasses.

Constables Ryan Barnett and Josh Mc Sweeney arrived within two minutes of taking the dispatched call finding building workers calling down to the men from the main floor after prying open the elevator doors. The officers decided to approach from the bottom floor because the latch appeared to be unable to open.

They took the stairs down where the water had already risen to within six inches of the doorways and were given a key to open the door to the elevator lobby.

Stripping themselves of their gun belts and bulletproof vests they swam into the black murky water feeling around the lock and latch.

“We’re feeling around and find the lock but there is no handle on the door, just a small lip. There was water on both sides so it was difficult to open the door,” said Barnett, who was thankful that the elevator lobby was still lit on the other side.

Two men in TPS uniform seated at a table with microphones and cameras pointed at them
Constables Josh Mc Sweeney and Ryan Barnett speak to the media about their rescue

“We hear the screaming ‘help us, please, the water is too high, we’re going to drown. Help us,’” said Barnett. “We told them ‘It’s the police, we’re here, we’re here to help you. We wanted to calm them down… It was very hard to hear them because the door was very thick.”

From there they yelled out to each other to figure out which way the door opened from and began pulling at the door with their bare hands.

“We’re unable to just use force to open the elevator with our bare hands. I’m treading water and I’ve got my feet against the frame of the elevator for leverage,” said Barnett, a 20-year police veteran.

McSweeney swam back to get a pry bar. They tried it but couldn’t get leverage in the deep water so he went back and was given a smaller one by workers in the building.

The water rose by about six inches in a few minutes of getting pry bars.

Barnett was able to gain the force to open the door an inch and from there both constables were able to open the exterior door and then the interior door.

The men, by then lifting their chins to be able to breathe above the water spilled out of the elevator.

They swam together the 20 feet to the safety of the stairwell, helping one man too exhausted or in too much shock to swim.

They thanked the officers, one man embracing Barnett in a bear hug, before they were taken for assessment.


Here we had extraordinary circumstances, which required an extraordinary response

It was the last call of the day for the officers.

“The way I look at it is, every police officer would have done the same thing,” Barnett said. “On the radio we heard 12 Division officers going into the water to check vehicles for people in flood waters.  We were in the right place at the right time to help them.”

He said it feels good to know he helped someone, that’s why he signed up for the job.

“I could sleep last night feeling really good we saved two people’s lives but I don’t feel like a hero I feel like we’re doing our job,” Barnett said. 

Mc Sweeney said they were focusing one step at a time.

“It was never a panic. We were both confident it was going to succeed… we were focused on one objective at a time,” said the 11-year officer.

“That was the most direct rescue I’ve been involved in. Obviously there are a lot of things we do to help people. It’s out of our element, you’re not expecting to tread water and rescue people from an elevator shaft.”

He never thought he would be sitting in front of the media explaining the call the next day.

“It’s nice to hear they have a family and they’ll be able to see them, you don’t think of that at the time,” he said, of the men who were trapped, who thanked officers through the media.

Superintendent Heinz Kuck said he was proud of the efforts of his officers to adapt quickly at the call.

“I’m so proud of their efforts,” Kuck said. “They did their job. Here we had extraordinary circumstances, which required an extraordinary response and they got up and did it.”

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