Valiant rescue effort falls short

Keremeos woman killed after vehicle plunges into icy Similkameen River

It’s a scenario RCMP Const. Mike Leiding has replayed many times over since Saturday’s accident that claimed the life of 44-year-old Jeanine Terbasket of Keremeos.

“You just wonder what else you could have done, and really I haven’t been able to come up with anything better, but I guess that’s just what the mind does,” said Leiding this week. “We tried as hard as we could and we did what we could do — you always hope you could do more but that just wasn’t the case.”

Leiding and Dave Groff, an Argo Road Maintenance employee, braved the frigid waters of the Similkameen River just outside Princeton in an unsuccessful attempt to free the woman from a partially submerged, overturned vehicle.

The accident happened about nine kilometres east of Princeton on Highway 3 just before 7:30 a.m.

The victim was driving a 1995 Honda Accord which went out of control on the icy road, plunging over a 25-foot embankment before coming to rest on its roof in the river.

Three other women in the vehicle — all relatives of Terbasket — managed to escape with varying degrees of injuries.

Leiding first realized something was wrong that morning while on patrol and seeing what appeared to be an injured person on the side of the road.

It was only after pulling over he spotted the vehicle in the water and a woman lying on an icy outcropping holding onto another female who was still in the river.

By then Groff had arrived, and the pair went down and pulled the one woman to safety and quickly did their best to make her comfortable.

At that point the attention turned to the vehicle they knew still had someone inside.

Standing on the frozen river bank, Leiding did not think twice about what had to be done.

“It was just instinct, Dave and I looked at each other and said we have to go in,” recalled the officer. “It wasn’t quite waist deep and we waded out to the car which was three-quarters of the way underwater and tried to flip it over, but it was too lodged in there. We couldn’t open the door and tried to cut the seat-belt off the driver (through the broken window) but weren’t able to.”

He then ran back up the bank to the highway and began flagging down vehicles in an attempt to get some rope or chains, which he managed to do.

With the clock ticking, the two men attached the lines to the car and Groff’s truck and on the second attempt managed to pull it up on its side.

“Most of the driver’s body was out of the water and I got on the edge of the vehicle to check on her and cut her seat-belt off, but I guess it was too late,” said Leiding. “But the cold does do different things. It does preserve life because it’s so shocking it slows the heart and all the other organs down, so we never did give up.”

A tow truck showed up and pulled the car out of the water, where paramedics attended to Terbasket who was unable to be revived.

For his part, Groff was reluctant to comment, and like the police officer, was quick to point to the many other people who stopped to help.

He too expressed his frustration in not being able to get the victim out of the car.

“You’ve only got a few seconds but it seemed like an eternity and you feel helpless because somebody is in there and you might be the difference between them ever seeing their family again,” he said. “You just feel like it’s all up to you. It’s probably the worst feeling I’ve ever felt in my entire life and I really hope I don’t have to go through that again.

“I was glad I tried and we did help the other girls, so there were some lives saved and that was really the good part of it, but like I say, if we could have got the last girl out…”

One official at the scene said afterwards there could have easily have been four fatalities.

“I think everyone, especially Dave (Groff) and the women all deserve a lot of credit,” said the officer. “They (injured) tried for a period of time to get the driver out before they actually got up on the river bank.”

The three females were taken by ambulance to Penticton Regional Hospital with what police report as moderate to severe, non-life-threatening injuries.

Kym Gouchie, a friend of the deceased, left a message on the Western News’ Facebook page:  “Love and prayers to the Terbasket family and friends. This is a huge loss to the Okanagan Nation community. Jeanine was a corner stone in her family and an incredible role model in the community. I will miss seeing her beautiful smile and gentle spirit. Rest in peace Jeanine. You will be missed and never forgotten.”