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Deceptively calm rivers present hidden dangers: Lifesaving Society Manitoba

Crews search the Red River near the Louise Bridge on Friday. Courtesy Dez Folwark Edwards
After a Winnipeg boy died in the Red River on Friday, water safety experts say they’re concerned about the risk for more possible drownings this summer.
The boy, nine-year-old Darius Bezecki, had been riding his bike near the river with his siblings and a friend near the Louise Bridge, police said.

Lifesaving Society Manitoba’s safety management coordinator, Christopher Love, told 680 CJOB while there are still many details to be learned about this latest case, there are drowning incidents every summer in the city and across the province. This season especially, there are a number of risk factors.
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“This year with the heat, combined with COVID-19 and the fact that many of the locations that people would normally go to cool down — swimming pools, wading pools etc. have been closed — we are concerned that people are going to be looking for less safe locations to go swimming.
“We really want to emphasize that you should try to find the safest location — a supervised location if at all possible — to go swimming,” he said.

Love said Winnipeg’s rivers — the Red, the Assiniboine, the Seine — are generally to be avoided when it comes to swimming, no matter how high the temperature gets.

“All of them are at higher water levels than normal this year,” he said.

“The fact of the matter is that although it may look calm from the surface, all these rivers, streams, they do have a current.

“That current may not show up directly on the surface, but it is there. It can easily pull you along. It can easily pull you under.”

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Debris in the river, he said, can also be hazardous, as it’s often obscured by the cloudiness of the water in local rivers. That cloudy water can also make it very difficult for rescuers to find and assist a person who’s in distress once they fall below the surface.
Young Bezecki’s drowning isn’t the only incident local first responders have responded to in recent days.

Russ Drohomereski, deputy chief of the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service, said the WFPS received four water-related calls within 45 minutes on the weekend. He attributes the spate of calls to a combination of rising water levels and people simply not being as safe as they should.

“I think people are not as aware of how high the rivers are, but also how fast they’re moving,” he said.

“There’s quite a flow in those rivers now.”

Mitch Bourbonnier is a volunteer with the group Drag the Red, and agrees there needs to be more public awareness about the dangers of the city’s rivers.

“I think more patrols along the river bank would be good,” Bourbonnier says.

“I also strongly recommend that water safety and survival is done in school. A lot of people come from backgrounds of being new Canadians or immigrants or they come from poverty and they haven’t had swimming lessons other kids have had.”

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Read more: Lifesaving Society teaches drowning prevention in northern Manitoba communities

Bourbonnier knows firsthand how quickly things can turn dangerous after nearly losing his life in the Assiniboine River while trying to save someone in 2016.

“We saw her in the river and emergency people had been called but she started to go under and I just decided to go into the river to get her,” Bourbonnier says.

Battling freezing December waters, Bourbonnier was eventually able to reach the girl and return to shore. He was awarded a Bronze Medal for Bravery from the Royal Canadian Humane Association in 2017 for his actions.

The Drag the Red group’s main priority is joining in searches when someone is missing or falls into the river, however Bourbonnier says they’ve recently become stronger advocates of river safety.

“With that comes the message to all Winnipeggers and all children of all backgrounds to be very, very careful around the river.”

A public vigil for Bezecki was held Monday afternoon at the Ernie O’Dowda park near the Louise Bridge where he went missing.

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