TORONTO — Two co-workers stranded in their office elevator while floodwaters from an intense rainstorm rose steadily to their necks used their fists and heads to force open a ceiling panel to call for help as Toronto police raced against the clock to save them.
Klever Freire and Gabriel Otrin figured they were about five minutes away from drowning when officers managed to pull them to safety, bringing an end to a harrowing half hour that left both feeling shaken and thankful by turns.
The dramatic rescue took place on Tuesday night as a slow-moving storm system drenched the city core while leaving the outskirts virtually dry.
Freire, 34, and Otrin, 27, said their late-night ordeal triggered a range of emotions, but also sparked a basic survival instinct.
“There was panic, there was praying, there was deciding that we were going to get out of there no matter what and then figuring out a way to do it,” Freire said on Wednesday.
Their task wasn’t easy.
The men said their troubles began when they were taking the elevator to the building’s basement parking lot to check on their vehicles after hearing reports of flooding.
The elevator stopped a couple of metres below the first floor, the men said, and water began seeping in from the gaps between the closed door. The electronics on board were soon out of order, leaving Otrin and Freire without working buttons or a functional emergency phone.
“We saw how quickly the water was coming in and we then realized that our lives were in danger,” said Freire.
In a bid to get a signal on his cellphone, Otrin said he started using his fists to punch out a ceiling panel. He eventually tried pushing it up with his head, surprisingly finding he had more leverage that way.
Freire also had a go at dislodging the panel, adding he was fearful of dropping the one cellphone on board and losing their best hope for a rescue.
Eventually the two men said they succeeded in breaking the ceiling panel open and calling 911. As they shared their plight with dispatchers, however, they watched with growing alarm as the water inside the elevator crept even higher.
By the time Const. Ryan Barnett and Const. Josh McSweeney arrived on the scene, the co-workers were nearly neck-high in the filthy water.
The officers had a formidable fight on their hands too, they said, explaining that pressure from the rising waters made it difficult to open the doors to the basement and reach the stranded elevator.
Once they succeeded, they faced the task of prying open the elevator door while treading water.
“We can hear them inside screaming for help and saying the water was getting too high and that they needed us,” Barnett said. “We started trying to pull the door open, but the pressure was just too great.”
McSweeney rushed upstairs for a pry bar, but even that operation was complicated by the fact that standard tools were too large for the unusually narrow opening in the elevator door.
Otrin, who turned to prayer for solace, said he felt confident his time to die had not yet come.
Freire said his thoughts were consumed by family.
“I was mainly thinking about my daughter,” he said. “I was supposed to go pick her up two hours earlier to go for a movie, but I wasn’t able to … (the experience) was a little bit eye-opening in terms of what matters.”
Eventually the two officers forced open the elevator and pulled the men to safety.
That was when Otrin said the gravity of the situation truly hit him.
“The water outside the elevator was actually slightly higher than what was in the elevator, ” he said. “We had about five minutes left until it would have reached the ceiling.”
The co-workers had high praise for the officers, though the constables themselves downplayed their roles.
“I think any officer in the situation would have done the exact same thing,” Barnett said. “Police officers do this for this reason — to save people.”
Freire and Otrin’s experience was among the most dramatic in a rash of rescue efforts prompted by the storm.
Capt. Michael Westwood of Toronto Fire Services said firefighters responded to 638 calls on Tuesday, about 98 per cent more than usual. From midnight to 8 a.m. Wednesday, call volumes soared to 137 per cent above average.
“(There were) people trapped in cars because they tried to drive through deep water,” he said. “Water was, a lot of times, more than a metre high on roadways.”
Vincent Ng witnessed one such roadside rescue while walking home.
He came upon a line of stranded vehicles, including one taxi with a driver inside who was shouting for help.
“(The cabbie) was trying to break the window with his fists and elbows,” Ng said. “(The firemen) climbed up on top of the car and tried to smash the front window, then moved to the back window and smashed that and got the guy out eventually. There was a round of applause.”
The downpour also resulted in flooding in the subway system — causing numerous delays — and caused leaks at Toronto City Hall.
Mayor John Tory commended city staff and first responders for their efforts and singled out Barnett and McSweeney.
“These stories remind us of the professionalism and bravery of our first responders and that Toronto is a caring city that will stand together in times of need,” he said.
Environment Canada said another system was forecast to bring up to 30 millimetres of rain for the city by Wednesday night.
— with files from Alan Black and Alanna Rizza.
Michelle McQuigge , The Canadian Press