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'I’m not dying in this hole while my son watches!'
What started out as a fun Family Day hike around a scenic waterfall turned into a harrowing tale of survival and selfless heroism for a local family.
Whitney Pier couple Donna Grover and Donnie Bishop, along with their daughter Melanie Drummond and grandsons Rowan, 12, and Ambrose, 8, of Dartmouth set out for winter walk through Uisge Ban Falls Provincial Park on Feb. 17. They had stopped near the falls at around noon when the ice below Drummond, 38, gave way, sending her falling about seven feet down into the icy water below.
“We were sitting there and having hot chocolate,” recalled Grover. “She turned around and walked kind of toward the falls to get an icicle that was hanging there and the whole thing just caved in and she disappeared. Her son was watching. It was horrific. Horrific. She went in and under the ice.”
Bishop tried to reach for Drummond with a ski pole but it broke. As he was reaching down to try to grab her hand, the ice caved in under him and he also fell into the pool.
“The pool of water that we fell into was maybe a little above our knees but the falls coming down was like somebody turned on two firehoses and it was ice cold,” said Bishop, who wrapped his arms around his stepdaughter’s waist and used his body to shield her from the brunt of the water that was cascading onto them as they struggled to keep their balance in the rushing current.
“When I fell in with Melanie, the first thing I did is I grabbed onto her and I said ‘Melanie, I’m not letting go of you.’ I got myself between her and the falls — I was taking all the falls on my back to protect her. And as I looked down where the pool of water was, the water was still gushing out and there was an opening between the ice and the flowing water, and I’m thinking to myself, if one of us slips and falls and gets caught in there we’re done, we’re not getting out of there because the water will suck you right in. It was horrifying.”
Grover, who was on the phone with a 911 operator, quickly took the long belt from her coat and tossed it down into the hole and Melanie, wrapped it around her wrist. Lying on the snow and desperately holding onto the belt, she watched helplessly as Rowan climbed closer to hole so he could see his mother and Ambrose ran downstream to a nearby bridge.
“It was absolutely awful. Her son was screaming. He was saying his goodbyes to his mother — ‘I love you so much, Mommy. You’ll always be in my heart, Mommy.’ It was terrible. It was unbelievable. The youngest guy kept running down to the bridge closest to the falls. There was an opening there and he kept saying ‘If mommy comes out, I’ll be able to catch her.’ I was hanging onto them with a belt from my coat and I couldn’t go to either one of my grandsons. It was horrific. I can’t even tell you how awful it was.”
About 20 minutes into the ordeal, Grover said Stephen Cantwell and Holly Chisholm and their dog Sadie came upon the scene.
“He took the leash off the dog — it was a lot longer than my belt. He put the leash in and he told them to grab onto it,” said Grover.
“I had a good hold on my belt but the current was just pulling them and I was at the very end of the belt. If he hadn’t have come when he did, I’m sure it would have been a different outcome.”
Not long after, a man who appeared to be a volunteer firefighter arrived.
“He was stripping his stuff as he was coming across the bridge. I don’t know how he ran the way he did, but he stripped off and he did not hesitate one second to get on the water,” said Grover, who didn’t learn the man’s identity.
At this point Drummond and Bishop had been in the water for more than 30 minutes and Bishop was quickly losing consciousness.
“As I was in there with Melanie, I told her I was not going to let go, she’s my daughter. I held on as long as I could,” he said, struggling to hold back tears. “I had my cheek right on Melanie’s cheek and I was kissing her saying, ‘Melanie, we’re going to get through this,’ but I was getting so numb.”
Grover said her husband soon passed out and her daughter then held him.
“I could (hear) her saying ‘Don’t let go, I’m not dying in this hole while my son watches.’ Then he passed out and she hung onto him and then she passed out,” she said. “He saved Melanie and when he passed out, Melanie held him. They both helped each other. They saved each other, I think.”
She said the firefighter also seemed to be beginning to struggle.
“His radio was on and he was saying, ‘You have to get here now because I can’t hang onto them,’ and shortly after that two RCMP officers arrived, a male and a female. The male stripped off and he also got in the water.”
Eventually, it took more than 25 people to pull all four people out of the water and by that time Drummond and Bishop had been in the frigid flowing water for more than an hour. Drummond’s body temperature had fallen to 24 C and Bishop’s was 26 C. About 37 C is considered normal and anything below 27 C is potentially fatal.
Grover watched as paramedics worked to save her daughter and husband.
“I remember them saying ‘We’ve got to get her out of here now.’ The snow was so deep, there were three people in the front and three in the back and they had to slide her out until they get her to a Ski-Doo. She was gurgling. It was absolutely awful. I took my coat off and I gave it to them to out over her because they didn’t have a warming blanket for her. It was terrible. It was awful.”
She said Bishop was in even worse shape.
“I thought he was dead — 100 per cent,” said Grover who was then faced with a dilemma — should she stay with her husband was or follow the ambulance carrying her daughter.
She ultimately drove with her grandsons to Victoria County Memorial Hospital where doctors had to drill a hole in below Drummond’s knee so they could pump warming fluids into her because they were unable to find any veins.
As Drummond regained consciousness and was being prepared for transport to Cape Breton Regional Hospital, Grover still didn’t know of Bishop’s condition. The ambulance had taken him directly to Sydney (he was not airlifted as the initial RCMP release had stated) but when she phoned the hospital, she was told a man had arrived there about 10 minutes ago but they couldn’t reveal his condition until a family member had identified him.
Assuming he had died, she got a drive back to the falls where she got in her daughter’s car and drove with her grandchildren to Sydney.
“Honestly, I tried just focusing on my grandsons,” she said when asked how she managed the difficult drive to Sydney. “They wanted to know if we were going to get there before their mother got there and I just kept thinking about them.”
Once she arrived at the hospital, Grover found out Bishop had survived, although he was still unconscious in the intensive-care unit. Both Drummond and Bishop suffered severe hypothermia as well as significant bumps and bruise. While Drummond was released the next day, Bishop, whose right arm was also broken during the incident, had to stay in the hospital for six days. Both have not yet regained feeling in their fingertips and doctors say there’s no way to know for sure if that will happen.
All five are being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Bishop said both of them are lucky to be alive.
“The day I was getting released, the doctor who came in to release me walked over to my bed and he said, ‘I’m looking at a miracle. There’s no other word for it,’” Bishop, who along with Grover wants to praise all of the people who helped them.
“I need people to know how wonderful those first-responders are, and the nurses and doctors, how hard they work. I’m sure everybody feels like you hear a story and you go ‘Oh great, those people helped out,’ but you really don’t understand until it’s happening to you. They’re angels from God. They really are. I don’t know what else to say,” said Grover.
Bishop’s voice cracks and his eyes well up with tears when he’s asked what he would say to his rescuers.
“I would literally get on the floor and kiss their feet. I would. There’s no words to express my gratitude,” he said, adding that Grover deserves credit for keeping a keep head in an unimaginable terrifying situation
“She’s the hero in all this,” he said. “She was trying to hold onto us, talking to 911, trying to control the two young fellas and here she is, she’s got her daughter in the water perishing, now her husband, and she’s trying to keep her head.”