The unthinkable might have happened had Andrew Payne not been in the right place at the right time.
Last Thursday, the 32-year-old Courtenay man jumped into the rapids at Nymph Falls and saved two young girls who had slipped into the river.
“If they weren’t exactly where they were, there would have been no chance,” said Payne, a retired member of the military who considers himself a “river rat.”
He and two friends, Cole Howey and Steve Tobacca, were at the falls but had separated. Tobacca was with his daughter Austin, 11, and her younger friend Jaydyn. They were near the part of the river known as the grotto.
“It’s pretty dangerous,” Payne said. “Water funnels in from the top and it stirs inside like a washing machine. It’s undertow and it’ll shoot you out the bottom, if you’re lucky.”
He says Tobacca and the girls were walking across the river when one of the girls slipped. Both girls were sucked into the top hole of the grotto.
“Nobody goes in there because it’s so dangerous,” Payne said. “It’s like a hole in the rocks underneath.”
A limping Tobacca — who Payne says had tried to rescue the girls but was sucked out at the bottom of the river — was screaming that they were still inside.
“They had been underwater (chest level) about five minutes,” said Payne, who dove underneath the current and came up underneath the rocks.
When he reached an air pocket, the girls were holding each other and screaming. They were huddled in a spot the size of a small car tire.
“That’s the only thing that saved them. All around them, it’s just undertow with water shooting in.”
Payne managed to reach the girls on his second attempt.
The back of the Jaydyn’s head was split open. Bear-hugging Payne, she took a breath at his count of three. Then they went underneath the water, and back up and under the falls. Payne managed to hold onto a rock, and walked part way across the rapids while holding Jaydyn. Then he jumped out of the waterfalls and handed her to Howey, who was halfway in the water.
Payne jumped in a second time to reach Austin, who was crying. He got her on his chest and conducted the same exit manoeuvre.
“We both got sucked into the undertow. She held her breath, and the current sucked us right out and spit us out down the falls.”
He passed Austin to Howey, who handed the youngster to others who had gathered.
“It’s crazy. For a young child, I can’t imagine what they went through,” Payne said. “It was the best case scenario. Things couldn’t have gone any better.”
“It doesn’t get any closer than that,” Howey added. “It was the best of a bad situation.”
An exhausted Payne threw up when the ordeal was over.
Jaydyn wound up with a couple stitches in the back of her head. But other than some scrapes and bruising, the girls are fine.
“I’m glad they’re safe,” Payne said. “It was a freak accident. It was fortunate somebody knew what they were doing.”