Cold enough for you? Clark and Giesbrecht exit the Sable after the first dunk into the icy Red River
Cold enough for you? Clark and Giesbrecht exit the Sable after the first dunk into the icy Red River. Click image to enlarge

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Sinking and thinking quickly

Red River near Winnipeg, Manitoba – “Are you still sure you want to do this?” said Dr. Giesbrecht.

Am I sure? I’m sitting in the driver’s seat of a sacrificial Mercury Sable, ready to embark on a very damp, very short journey. The scene is thick with emergency personnel, professional rescue divers, even an EMS Zodiac keeps a watery watch as I go over the logistics with Professor Popsicle, AKA Dr. Gord Giesbrecht from the University of Manitoba Faculty of Kinesiology and Recreation Management. The good doctor has had his fair share of the 15 minute allotment, demonstrating cold weather survival techniques in a variety of scenarios, including cold water immersion. Lesser known is his work at the wheel, when that wheel is heading underwater. That’s where we’re headed.

I can't feel my face - The author dons the dry suit for the demonstration
A volunteer pokes his head through the 'escape hatch'. It took over 3 minutes to kick out the rear window
A volunteer pokes his head through the ‘escape hatch’. It took over 3 minutes to kick out the rear window. Click image to enlarge

Recent events: they always seem to be the catalyst for demonstrations of this nature. The death of three college students in nearby North Dakota is the type of catalyst that nobody ever wants: a night of star-gazing that ended in three metres of water. A simple pond doesn’t look like a killer, nor does a water-filled ditch, or a swollen spring stream. What we see is the flash of smiling faces on the evening news, the unlimited possibilities of a life cut short. As the father of a child nearing the age of back road star-gazing, this day was as important as the lesson of looking both ways.

“Your window of opportunity can be less than three minutes,” said Giesbrecht, as I wiggled my way into the dry suit. “Getting the windows down before the vehicle sinks is key to survival.” Forget everything you’ve seen on the small and silver screens. The existence of massive air bubbles and windows that smash open with the tap of an elbow are as fictitious as most Academy Award -winning plot lines. “Every second that you’re in that vehicle, your chances of survival decreases dramatically,” said Giesbrecht.

Just in case - an emergency breathing apparatus was never factory equipment
Just in case – an emergency breathing apparatus was never factory equipment. Click image to enlarge

To drive home the time component, Giesbrecht tapped a volunteer observer to attend to the creation of a rear window escape hatch on the Sable; with his feet. The volunteer was asked to kick out the rear window, with as much force as possible. Here’s where the Hollywood theory of Quik-Bust glass falls flat. The majority of vehicles on today’s roads use a urethane adhesive to hold windshields and rear windows in place. The adhesive adds a structural element, which can assist in preventing deformation of the roof structure in a rollover event. It took better than two minutes for the volunteer to start moving the glass out of the frame, finally shattering the window by minute four. Imagine that same task, as brown river water rushes in.

Members of the Canadian Amphibious Search Team (CAST) readied themselves to assist with positioning the vehicle in the murky Red. On board the Sable, the divers had equipped the vehicle with a small air tank, and a pair of regulators. Giesbrecht readied his underwater camera unit, as volunteers were tapped for motive power. While the vehicle was a Manitoba Public Insurance write-off, it would not be a runner, as all fluids had been drained from the Sable for environmental concerns. The electrical system had already been compromised from a test dunk, leaving the side windows inoperable. “Power windows should still work when the vehicle first enters the water,” said Giesbrecht. For this demonstration, the rear window escape hatch would be our only exit.

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