Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Heroic Mountie saves woman from icy river

Young constable puts life at grave risk in Fairford to save woman

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Fraser Potts knew exactly what he had to do as he stood on the banks of a swollen, fast-flowing river where a woman was struggling to stay afloat.

The young Manitoba RCMP constable removed his police vest, unholstered his gun belt and made the icy plunge, which instantly took his breath away.

"I didn't want this girl to die," Potts, 28, told the Free Press on Monday. "It was freezing cold. But I thought I had to try and save her."

And while Potts quickly brushed aside suggestions he's a hero, his actions in saving a life -- while putting his own on the line -- certainly meet the criteria of one.

The rescue began last Friday evening when Gypsumville RCMP were first called about a 22-year-old woman who had left her residence in Fairford with the intention of possibly harming herself. Fairford is located about 240 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg.

Potts and his partner, Const. Josh Maynard, were told by the woman's family she was believed to be headed to the Fairford Bridge. And that's exactly where they spotted her after making the 15-minute drive from their detachment in Gypsumville.

"We pulled up to her car. But as soon as we did she just took off," said Potts.

'I didn't want this girl to die. It was freezing cold. But I thought I had to try and save her'

-- Const. Fraser Potts

There was no chance to have a conversation. No opportunity to try and talk her down from the emotional ledge she was perched on. Just a floored gas pedal and the stunning aftermath as she drove off the road and straight into the Fairford River, which had only just shed its ice cover days earlier.

"There was a big splash. We couldn't believe what happened," said Potts.

The car began floating downstream, and Potts and his partner saw the woman flee her car before it sank.

"It was kind of bobbing in the river. As soon as it started to go under, she came out the passenger window or door," said Potts.

He was now on foot, standing on the riverbank, while his partner radioed for backup and co-ordinated a potential water rescue. Potts started shouting to the woman.

"She was mumbling 'Can't swim, can't swim,'" said Potts. "I was trying to show her how to swim but the current was pulling her away."

Potts figured he and the woman had both travelled about 3/4 of a kilometre downstream when she began to disappear under the water.

'It was a real dangerous situation. We're very proud of the work he's done'

-- Cpl. Miles Hiebert

"She went down, then came up, then went down again," he said. "I was just thinking 'Holy crap, she could die.' "

Potts has spent much of his life around water, including previous stints as a lifeguard in Waterloo, Ont. This is the first time he's ever had to put that training to use in the four years since he joined the Manitoba RCMP, all of them stationed in Gypsumville.

He tried to focus on the task at hand while swimming out to the woman, but the icy waters made it difficult as he began to lose feeling in his limbs. Potts reached the woman and told her to stay still, as he was worried she may try to fight him and make it impossible to rescue her.

Potts was attempting to swim to shore with the woman when a boat that had been put in the water by several Fairford band members came by to pull them both to safety. His partner, Maynard, was also inside the boat and had to drag him out of the water. They had gone a full two kilometres downstream from the Fairford Bridge.

"I couldn't really move my feet," said Potts. He is thankful for the local residents who helped out, conceding he might not have been able to make it to shore without them. "It's kind of hard to think about that," he said.

Both Potts and the woman were taken to hospital in Ashern for treatment. As he was being discharged late Friday night, Potts stopped by the room of the young woman, who had been joined by her parents.

"I asked her if she remembered what happened," he said. The woman seemed to still be in a daze, so Potts recounted the dramatic events that had taken place a few hours earlier.

"And she said thanks," he said. "Her parents were also very thankful."

RCMP Cpl. Miles Hiebert was quick to praise Potts, saying he went above and beyond the call of duty.

"It was a real dangerous situation. We're very proud of the work he's done," he said.

RCMP are continuing to investigate the incident and haven't ruled out potential charges against the woman, although the case may be one for mental-health services rather than the criminal courts.

Potts is just happy it all worked out in the end, admitting he's just realizing how close he came to his own demise now that the initial adrenaline has worn off.

"It hasn't really sunk in yet," he said. But he wouldn't change a thing, despite the risks.

"You'd just hate to see someone drown right in front of you," he said.

www.mikeoncrime.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 14, 2013 A10

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