Watson Lake man survives icy plunge into Yukon River

A Watson Lake resident says a series of fortunate events saved his life on Monday night, after his car plunged into the freezing waters of the Yukon River.

A Watson Lake resident says a series of fortunate events saved his life on Monday night, after his car plunged into the freezing waters of the Yukon River.

Roger Latondress was driving home from Whitehorse after an evening of shopping when he approached the Lewes River Bridge, about 30 kilometres south of the city.

A few motorists who seemed to be in a hurry overtook him on the Alaska Highway, creating a whiteout and limiting his visibility.

“I contemplated turning around and going back,” the 64-year-old said.

“But the traffic wasn’t too bad and I was only going about 65 to 70 clicks.”

A dirt road next to the bridge veers to the right, which Latondress mistook for the highway.

Before he realized the mistake he’d made, he was airborne.

Latondress said his life flashed before his eyes.

There was a “horrific” sound as the front of the Mazda 323 made contact with the river.

“It blew the hood off the vehicle,” he said.

“There was a hell of a noise, like a loud bang, it shook the whole car. All of a sudden, everything went silent.”

He realized his car was moving sideways. He started to feel the freezing water go up his legs.

He remembers yelling “Oh my God!” several times as the water quickly rose higher.

Latondress undid his seatbelt and quickly went for the doorhandle, but decided to roll his window down instead.

Pulling himself out, he gave one final kick against the car door. It took only 90 seconds, he estimates, from the time he hit the water to the time the car was completely submerged.

“It was like slow motion,” he said.

“The water was so cold it burned. I don’t know how to swim, but I paddled like crazy and got myself to shore.”

Finally out of the water, he couldn’t feel his arms or legs, which meant he couldn’t stand up.

By that time a trucker, who had been following Latondress and witnessed him crashing, had pulled over and tried to help him out of the water.

Latondress was wearing a light coat, a T-shirt and jeans, he said.

The trucker asked if there was anyone else in the car.

“I was shaking and freezing, him and his buddy pulled me up and threw me in his truck.”

They made Latondress undress completely, gave him a warm coat and cranked the heat inside the truck.

He was given a new pair of pants to wear, but Latondress was shivering so badly he couldn’t put them on, so he laid them on his legs.

The Whitehorse RCMP and an ambulance arrived within 20 minutes, Latondress said.

“That was an experience too because as soon as I hit the cold, I just about fell apart again,” he said.

They took him to Whitehorse General Hospital, where what happened finally hit home and he was overwhelmed by emotions.

He said he recognized the truckers who saved his life – they stop by the Nugget City restaurant and service centre near Watson Lake all the time.

“They were fantastic, they knew exactly what I was facing.”

Latondress doesn’t doubt he would have died if he’d been all alone on the banks of the Yukon River that night.

A master wood carver, he thinks it just wasn’t his time to go.

Now, Latondress is faced with the expensive task of getting the vehicle out of the water.

According to his friend Amber Andreucci, who started a fundraising page for him, Latondress was driving a friend’s vehicle and he’s on disability pension.

He’s had to hire divers so they can hook the car to a tow truck.

And on top of that, the car was full of Christmas gifts and new appliances he’d purchased that day.

The past few nights have been hard, too. He’s had nightmares about the accident on more than one occasion.

“My mind keeps coming up with different scenarios,” he said.

“In one, the car goes underwater and pins me to the bottom of the river. In another, I can’t get out the driver’s window so I try the passenger’s, but the car rolls over and I’m trapped.”

Despite the financial loss and lack of sleep, Latondress said he feels rewarded and lucky to be alive.

“Thinking about it now brings tears to my eyes.”

As of Friday morning, over $600 had been raised for Latondress. Donations can be made at https://www.gofundme.com/helprogertoday.

Contact Myles Dolphin at

myles@yukon-news.com

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