Monday, October 25, 2010

Accident brings friendship to a tragic end

Ivan Polivka (right) and Jo-Ann Fuller were killed when their ambulance went over a cliff into Kennedy Lake on Vancouver Island.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
October 25, 2010


Garth Cameron remembers “a big punchy day” of stiff winds and crashing waves on Chesterman Beach near Tofino 10 years ago.

He splashed out on his surf board.

In the churning water, he got knocked into the air, landing awkwardly atop the board, breaking his left leg in two places.

Another large wave began rolling in. He clambered onto his board, riding into the sandy shore on his belly.

An ambulance drove him the 200 kilometres to hospital in Nanaimo. Filled with the painkiller Demerol, he drifted in and out of alertness. An attendant talked to him during a drive along Highway 4 lasting more than two hours, cracking jokes and making light banter. In that time, the beginnings of a hearty camaraderie formed between Mr. Cameron and Ivan Polivka.

A week ago they came together at the scene of another accident — one that brought their friendship to a tragic conclusion.

The men liked to fish. Mr. Cameron, now 46 and the building inspector in nearby Ucluelet, used to dig up worms for bait from the compost heap maintained by Mr. Polivka, 65. The older man would be repaid with trout.

Mr. Polivka, a recent widower, placed for sale the beachfront home he built in the 1960s. He planned to retire on an isolated acreage he owned on Lake Laberge, north of Whitehorse in the Yukon, a fly-fishing paradise.

The plan was for Mr. Cameron to drive his friend north to the territory, staying for a few days to enjoy the abundance provided by the Yukon River.

On Tuesday morning, Mr. Cameron, a senior search-and-rescue volunteer, was working on his diesel truck when he got an emergency page. A vehicle had crashed down a cliff along a treacherous stretch of Highway 4.

While driving to the scene, he was told the missing vehicle was an ambulance from Tofino.

He knew all the paramedics. These were going to be friends in distress.

Fifteen minutes later, he was told who was in the ambulance — Mr. Polivka and Jo-Ann Fuller, 59, whom he met years ago when she taught a first-aid course. She, too, liked to fish, though had a reputation for hard luck on the water, snagging her line on seaweed. They teasingly called her the Kelp Queen.

He knew them also as able professionals.

“They brought people back from the brink of death more than once,” he said.

At the crash scene, a debris field led to a steep drop. The ambulance was nowhere to be seen, meaning it was submerged in the icy waters of Kennedy Lake.

Mr. Cameron approached Francis Bruhwiler, a BC Parks ranger, one of the famed Tofino surfing clan.

“I cannot run this show,” Mr. Cameron told him. “I’m too much emotionally connected to the people in that ambulance.”

He had one other request.

“You have to look after me,” he added.

Mr. Cameron rappelled the cliff, searching for bodies, hoping one or both had been ejected from the vehicle during its terrifying descent in the predawn darkness. He found nothing.

After RCMP divers reported discovering the bodies of his friends in the water, Mr. Cameron went home. He figured there was nothing left for him to do.

He mourned the loss of two friends.

He also had to acknowledge it was not the worst case he had ever faced.

Two years ago, Mr. Cameron headed the search for William Pilkenton, a curly-haired, seven-year-old boy from Washington State out for a walk along the shore with his father. The lad simply disappeared. For days, Mr. Cameron organized a small army of volunteers.

“I looked for William as if he was one of my own,” said the father of four. “The only thing I didn’t do was I didn’t drain the ocean.”

In the end, his bereft parents had to be told no trace could be found. It is assumed the boy fell, striking his head, before being swept out with the tide.

“That poor little guy,” he said.

On the terrible Tuesday when Tofino lost two fine paramedics, Mr. Cameron realized there was a last favour he could do for a lost friend.

He went to Mr. Polivka’s waterfront home, climbing front steps too steep to make code. “Ivan, you’ve got to fix these stairs,” he used to tell his friend. “This house is haywire.”

He fed the cats at a home offering spectacular views of the waters on which he broke his leg a decade ago.

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