Klever Freire and his colleague Gabriel Otrin, who were working late at their Toronto tech start-up, say they are fortunate to be alive after both men got trapped in their building’s elevator, which was quickly filling with water during Tuesday night’s flash flood.
“We heard that there was a little bit of water coming into the basement and that the cars might be in danger, so we were just going down to move my car,” Freire said.
“Gabriel just came down with me by accident, thankfully, because he was the only one who had a cellphone.”
WATCH: Gabriel Otrin who was trapped in a flooded basement elevator during a heavy rainfall in Toronto Tuesday night recalls how he got trapped and thanked Toronto police for the rescue.
Freire said the elevator, which they got into just after 10:30 p.m., suddenly started to flood and the emergency speaker button was no longer functioning.
“Initially, I think it got to about the waist level in about three or four minutes and we were sort of panicking at that point because we had no reception,” Freire said.
“There was a period of time where Gabriel was praying and he was concerned. He thought that it might be it.”
Otrin said he had “faith” that God would save them.
“Within the first five minutes, it was pretty clear what was going to happen so I prayed about it and I was able to remain calm as a result because I knew that god would save us.”
“It was certainly scary … but I got the word that now was not my time, so I remained calm and did what I could to help get us out,” he said.
WATCH: Police superintendent ‘couldn’t be more proud’ of officers who freed men trapped in flooded elevator
As the water started to rise and with no way out, Freire said he and Otrin decided to find some reception by punching their way through the elevator roof panel.
“We were told that the panel actually locks from the outside. So it’s an emergency panel. But only accessible from the outside. That was unfortunate,” Freire said.
“So we were only able to open up just a crack… so that we can get a signal.”
VIDEO: Klever Freire who was trapped in a flooded basement elevator during a heavy rainfall in Toronto Tuesday night recalls how he was rescued.
Still, Freire said they managed to connect and call police. Toronto police said they received a call around 10:52 p.m. from a commercial building on Alliance Avenue, east of Rockcliffe Boulevard and Jane Street.
Constables Ryan Barnett and Josh McSweeney were writing up notes nearby from a previous call when they heard the call go out. The two officers work in 11 Division, the division next to where the building was.
“We knew that probably no one was going to be getting there any time soon so we marked ourselves on it,” McSweeney said, adding officers in 12 Division were busy responding to flooding calls.
“As we were getting closer, we could hear the water was going up and up,” Barnett said while recalling their efforts to get to the scene.
Barnett said after they arrived, people inside the building were able to open the elevator doors on the ground level. They could see the elevator car five or six feet below in the basement level. The hatch at the top of the elevator was only able to open a few inches, so Barnett said they had to go to the basement to try to force the doors open.
When they went to try to go to the basement, Barnett said they saw water at the base of the stairs.
“We could see a high level of water, but we really couldn’t tell how deep it was because the water was so murky and dirty,” he said.
“So we just stripped our vests off and our gun belts and we went in the water.”
The officers had to get a key to open a locked door before getting to the elevators, noting they couldn’t see the lock and had to feel for the keyhole. Barnett said when they got to the elevator, they could hear Freire and Otrin.
“We could hear them inside screaming for help and saying that the water was getting too high and that they needed us,” he said.
“We just said that we were here. I said, ‘It’s the police, we’re here. We’re here to help you. We’re trying to open the door.’”
The water in the elevator had reached six-feet high, leaving only a foot of airspace for the trapped men.
McSweeney said they tried to pry the elevator doors open with a long crowbar, but they weren’t able to get enough force to open the doors. He said the water pressure was hampering their efforts. McSweeney said they had to go back to the main floor to get a small crowbar to be able to force the doors. He noted in the couple of minutes it took to get the smaller crowbar, the water rose about six inches and they could no longer touch the floor of the basement.
READ MORE: What to do if your home is flooded
After the doors finally opened, McSweeney and Barnett pulled the men to safety.
“It was very goal oriented. We knew what we had to do,” Barnett said when asked how they prioritized their actions and utilized their training.
“It feels good. I went to bed and I couldn’t sleep. I was very excited and happy and you get to save a couple of people’s lives – that’s what we do this job for and we were just lucky enough that we were close enough to help them.”
Freire said he suffered from bruises to his hand while trying to get the roof panel open and Gabriel received some cuts to his hand as well.
“There was panic. There was praying. There was deciding that we were going to get out of there no matter what,”
“And then figuring out a way to do it once we got a hold of the emergency crew. I guess the issue was that nobody knew how quickly the water was coming in so, for all they thought, we were just stuck in an elevator.”
Freire said he thought about his family during the frantic moments.
“I was mainly thinking about my daughter at the time, so I was supposed to pick her up two hours earlier to go for a movie, but I was unable to because I had a bunch of emergency things come up that I stayed here for,” he said.
WATCH: Toronto police officers lay out series of events leading to last-minute elevator rescue
Both men said they are thankful police arrived as quickly as they did.
“I think they were just relieved to get to us in time. There wasn’t very much that they said,” Freire said.
“I was telling my family that I did lifeguard training when I was kid and as soon as I got out of the elevator, it’s like I forgot how to swim.”
Otrin said he wants to thank police and the emergency crews who helped to save them.
He said he hopes to meet the two officers again — when he’s in a better frame of mind — to be able to properly thank them.
The officers said they look forward to seeing Freire and Otrin again. When told they were being hailed as heroes, McSweeney said they were just doing their job.
“It just felt like another call to be quite honest, especially it was the last call of the day,” he said.
“It’s nice to be called a hero, but it’s just what we’re supposed to be doing. It’s nice to help them out.”
Toronto Police 11 Division Supt. Heinz Kuck said he is proud of the work Barnett and McSweeney did.
“They went through a number of heroic measures to make sure that they were able to locate the elevator, the men inside, and provide a rescue,” he said.
“They did their job. Here we had extraordinary circumstances, which required an extraordinary response, and they played game … they got up and did it.”
Flooded roadways and stalled public transit
The heavy downpour, which produced between 70 and 110 millimetres of rain on parts of Toronto over a two-hour span, caused widespread flooding on roadways and caused numerous public transit disruptions.
Subway service between Finch West and Wilson stations was halted due to the rising water levels.
Meanwhile, a streetcar was rendered inoperable after being trapped at the King Street underpass near Atlantic Avenue.
A number of vehicles had to be abandoned across the city as roadways were flooded.
Firefighters managed to rescue a taxi driver stuck in a vehicle which was partially submerged at Bloor Street and Perth Avenue in the Junction Triangle neighbourhood.
Three vehicles were stuck on Wilson Street near Dubray Avenue, east of Keele Street. However, the occupants were able to leave safely.
WATCH: Toronto cops describe extraordinary coincidences that led them to rescue people trapped in flooded elevator
Union Station, Toronto’s downtown transit hub, was also partially flooded as commuters had to manoeuver through drenched entrances and tunnels.
The Lower Simcoe Street underpass, an area prone to flooding in downtown Toronto, was also an easy target for Tuesday night’s storm. A number of vehicles attempted to make it through, but some were ultimately unsuccessful.
Power outages and flooded homes
Toronto Hydro crews worked overtime to restore power to hundreds of customers affected by the storm.
North York was one of the neighbourhoods hardest hit with a number of flooded basements.
“In 2012, the same thing happened. We installed new pipes, which the pump, they said, would not let the water come in again. Anyways, this happened again and is a total loss for us,” Susana Luna said.
Apartments buildings in the Liberty Village area near the downtown core were also damaged by the relentless rainfall.
“The roof actually collapsed in the parking garage. So there are two different sections where you can see the water just flooding through and I heard that it was a water main pipe that broke,” Emily Foucault said.
VIDEO: Toronto resident Emily Foucault describes the flooding at her Liberty Village apartment