When Adam Nelson and Sokha Eang met each other on Feb. 19, 2019, the moment was one of panic, fear, adrenaline and heroism.
A Surrey realtor and avid angler, Eang was on his way to fish for steelhead on the Vedder River at around 8:30 a.m. that rainy day. Driving along Keith Wilson Road, he came across the scene Nelson was already at after dropping his son off at school in Chilliwack.
Two teenagers were trapped in a red Honda Civic on its roof in a water-filled ditch. One of those teenagers was critically injured with his head in the water.
“I popped out to take a look and that’s when I realized, this is a serious situation,” Eang told The Progress a year ago. “I quickly tightened up my boots and went.”
Inside the car was 17-year-old Abbotsford student Kyle Ruffell who had been on his way to the University of the Fraser Valley (UFV) Trades and Technology Centre with his friend Umer Khokhar.
Luckily, Eang had hip waders so he was able to go into the murky ditch water. He and Nelson took over from another young man who was holding Ruffell’s head out of the water but was suffering himself from the extreme cold.
Nelson was able to pull Ruffell’s head out of the water but the teen was unconscious and appeared to not be breathing. The car was mostly submerged and the two men couldn’t get the door open.
Nelson called for his girlfriend to get an axe out of his truck to use as a tool to pry open the door. Eang cut Ruffell’s seatbelt. And through sheer will and adrenaline-sparked strength, the two eventually wedged the door open enough to yank the young man out and over to the steep bank of the ditch.
Ruffell was conscious, coughed up water, and opened his eyes.
“I’m not huge into faith and God and all the spiritual things, but something was definitely happening in the universe to put me there wearing fishing waders,” Eang said after the incident.
It wasn’t until they got Ruffell out that they realized Khokhar was in the back seat, unbuckled up to his neck in water.
“He said ‘I’m cold but I’m good,’” Eang said.
At the time, it was a relief to Nelson and Eang that Ruffell appeared to be OK, but tragically he died in hospital 12 days later.
Asked about what he was thinking when he realized someone was trapped in the car, Eang said there was no time to think.
“It was go time, it was a fight-or-flight situation. When I saw that, I knew it was life or death because it was cold.… Nobody else was able to enter the water.”
The two men were called heroes by many on social media after the incident, and this past weekend they were recognized as such.
The two were among 19 recipients of Bravery Awards from the Lifesaving Society at the 108th Annual Honour & Rescue Award Ceremony on March 7 at the Hotel Vancouver.
Along with other dignitaries, Burnaby North MLA Janet Routledge was in attendance to recognize them and others for bravery in making water-related rescues.
A year ago Nelson said it’s OK if people want to use the word “hero”, but he hopes others would do the same.
“That’s what I would expect people would do for me or people I love in that situation.”
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