CALGARY- His ability to ‘keep on smiling’ even in the most distressing situation made him the face of the flood. Now, one year after the devastating waters hit southern Alberta, Nanton’s Shawn Wiebe continues to make people grin.
The soon-to-be 40-year-old clearly remembers the day he became an instant celebrity. On June 20, 2013, the volunteer firefighter was working at his day job at a tractor dealership when he got the call.
“My chief came to my wash bay and told me we may have to go assist High River with evacuating the hospital. I’d say about an hour went by, and he says ‘Shawn, we’ve gotta go now,’” Wiebe recalls.
They set up at staging area at the Co-op, to keep people from heading downtown as the flood waters quickly rose up around them.
“About 1 o’clock in the afternoon, I noticed water coming up 1st Street. We’re about five blocks away from the river, so for water to be coming up the street it’s like, woah.”
His team quickly headed into the store, where about 200 people were stranded. A boat from Okotoks arrived to shuttle two mothers with young children to safety, but it quickly became apparent it would be too dangerous for the dinghy to try to make it back for another trip.
Thinking quickly, Wiebe and his co-workers grabbed the keys to combines from their shop, and three of them were deployed to shuttle dozens of people to safety. He remembers one woman, seemingly oblivious to the dangerous situation, attempting to get back to her van to retrieve cat food.
“I go rushing over there…I grabbed her arm and we’re walking through the water. Just even two feet of water, as big of a guy as I am and as strong, it was rough. It was quick and it was hard to walk through, it took a lot of strength.”
After making it to higher ground, Wiebe turned back and hopped on the last combine out of the Co-op, as they travelled to another staging area on 12 Ave. where some evacuees were trying to make it to safety. That’s when he saw Sheila Roland.
“I looked in the boat, and she’s a little lady. She had a winter coat on, which was drenched in water, and somebody gave her inserts from their winter boots that were well oversized, because I guess she was barefoot throughout the day. I looked at her and said, ‘instead of you walking through the water again, I’ll carry you to the dry part.’
“I scooped her up and gave her a little smile, and she pipes up ‘the last time I was carried like this was on my wedding night!’ It made both of us just laugh.”
The whole exchange was captured by photographer Lyle Aspinall, who quickly sent the photo back to his Calgary newsroom—and it soon went viral.
The original photo was taken by Lyle Aspinall/Calgary Sun/QMI Agency.
Wiebe is now known as the ‘ridiculously photogenic firefighter’ and has since coined the phrase “keep on smiling”—much to the amusement of his wife of nine years, Dawn.
“My phone was going crazy. She kind of laughed, she’s like ‘only you.’”
Wiebe just so happens to have a twin named Ryan, who works as a firefighter in High River. Both brothers helped evacuate the town that fateful day, and Wiebe says his twin has the same easy-going demeanor.
“It doesn’t matter the situation, the both of us always have a smile on our face. It’s just how we were brought up.”
Wiebe thinks the photo of him carrying Roland through the water struck such a chord with people, because it was a sign of something positive out of the devastation.
“Reading the posts on Twitter and whatnot, things that stuck out in my mind was people were getting depressed and didn’t know what to do. They could see that photo and say it lifted their spirits up, because it made them happy to keep going.”
After the evacuation efforts wrapped up and the scale of the disaster set in, the father of two turned his attention to the emergency centre.
“The one thing that really got me was a [man] was standing where the ice rink was with his little girl, I’d say she was six months old. He was holding her trying to get her to sleep, and he must have been holding her quite a while because his arms were shaking, he was very tired,” Wiebe remembers. “I got my wife to bring a playpen down…and set it up for him.
“He started crying, which got me going. It was very emotional. He put his daughter down, and I gave him a big hug and whatnot, and I had to leave for a little bit and cool down.”
He says the spirit of the relief effort is what helped him through the long days.
“The countless volunteers coming from Calgary, coming from everywhere just to help this town get back up and going, it’s pretty amazing that about how thoughtful everybody is.
“I love being Canadian. It’s amazing, we’re the most generous people. It’s very heartwarming.”