The inquest in to the death of Mayo RCMP officer Const. Michael Potvin began Monday with harrowing testimony from witnesses to the drowning on the Stewart River two years ago.
It was just after 7:30 p.m. when Jimmy Simon and his friend Benny Moses left a Mayo restaurant. Walking down the road, they heard loud voices coming from the river.
When they got to the top of the dyke, they saw Potvin and his partner Cpl. Brent Chapman in the water clinging to the side of their capsized boat.
They weren’t yelling for help, just talking loudly, said Simon. But he wasn’t wasting any time.
He ran back to the restaurant and grabbed the biggest guy there, Jeremy Germaine. Together, the three men ran down the shore.
“We told them not to let go, to hang on, we’ll be right there,” said Simon.
The men grabbed a boat that was on the riverbank and threw it in the water.
“It was a struggle at first but then adrenaline kicked in,” said Germaine.
The boat had a motor, but there were no keys for it. They didn’t even have paddles.
“We grabbed some logs and Benny ripped a piece of plywood,” said Simon.
The makeshift poles weren’t long enough to reach the bottom, but were enough to get them going, he said.
But by the time they got the boat into the water, Potvin had started to swim for shore.
“I guess he thought he could make it,” said Simon. “When you’re that close to dry land, you’re going to try something.”
Back up on the dyke, Germaine’s mother, Joanne Buyck, and her partner, David Lucas, watched the scene unfold.
According to Lucas’ testimony, Potvin told the rescue boat to leave him and go get his partner who was drifting down river.
Simon was concerned that the current might send Chapman and the capsized boat around the bend and into a rough spot in the river.
Besides that, everyone thought Potvin was going to be OK.
“From here I was standing it looked like 20 to 25 hand strokes maybe and he would hit shore,” said Buyck. “He was swimming really good. I thought, ‘He’s going to make it.’”
But Potvin didn’t.
“He came straight up, like a dolphin or a shark, and then straight down,” said Buyck. “I thought, ‘Is he going to come up?’ My heart was just shaking.”
Potvin was only 20 to 30 metres away when he went down, said Lucas.
“I saw his arms flapping and all of a sudden he went under,” he said.
Lucas saw Potvin surface three times before going under for good.
It was the last time anyone saw him alive.
Meanwhile, the rescue boat made it to Chapman and pulled him out.
“It seemed to take forever,” said Germaine.
They were able to get both boats beached on a gravel bar. It was then that they found out that Potvin had gone under.
From the gravel bar they were able to make it to shore.
“We all jumped out, ran up and down through the bushes looking for him,” said Simon.
By that time, other people had joined in the search.
When Chapman got back to the boat launch, he jumped in a boat with Tyson Bourgard.
“He was shaking, wet still and very agitated I thought he might be in shock,” said Bourgard. “His lips were blue.”
They were only out for an hour when Bourgard brought Chapman back to shore.
The search continued through the night. Both Germaine and Simon were out until 3 a.m.
Potvin’s body wasn’t recovered until 17 days later, about 60 kilometres downriver.
It was his commanding officer, Sgt. Dave Wallace, who made the gruesome discovery.
“As I went by I saw it, Mike’s back up against a tree, he said. “He was face down.”
Wallace’s couldn’t remember what Potvin was wearing when he recovered his body.
“Mike was in a pretty bad state of decomposition,” he said.
Simon ended his testimony with a word of advice for everyone in the room.
“If any of you guys find yourselves in a river without a life jacket and you go under, don’t fight it, swim with the current, swim to the surface, it’s going to push you up,” he said. “You swim against it, you’re gone.”
The inquest is scheduled to continue until Friday.
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