Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A hero's end

Nurse recounts attempt to save Faron Hall from the Red

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She had come alone in the rain to share her story about the drowning of Faron Hall, a story she felt those who loved him should know.

But she couldn't do it.

Not then.

Instead, the white-skinned, blonde-haired, 53-year-old woman stood quietly with his grieving family, his street friends and others who, when the heavens opened so thunderously Thursday evening, had gathered under the Provencher Bridge, where the homeless sometimes seek shelter from the elements.

It was there, in that fitting concrete-covered, cathedral-like setting at the river's edge, that the blonde woman silently joined all those dark-haired people she didn't know. She listened as they took turns speaking about Hall. The homeless man the nation got to know five years ago through news, after he swam to save a young man who had fallen from the same bridge, then four months later risked his life again to save a female friend from drowning in the same waters. Yet, he never forgave himself for not rescuing the man who was in the river with her.

And then last week, on a hot summer Friday, it was Hall who was spotted in distress in the river. First by an off-duty police officer, and later by the blonde woman and others aboard a passing water taxi. That was the story she had come to share with the family.

But instead -- concerned about intruding, and weeping uncontrollably -- she simply listened.

She listened as a woman recalled how, when she met Hall for the first time, and he learned she was walking to the food bank, he gave her his last two bus tickets. The blonde woman listened as someone else remembered how, when Peak of the Market hired him and Hall had money for an apartment, he would invite his homeless friends to stay with him.

"He never forgot where he came from," was the message.

And the blonde woman listened to the big voice of Kevin Hart, the chairman of Thunderbird House, who had a message of his own. It was Hart who was recently pictured trying to speak with Gord Steeves as the mayoral candidate left a news conference where he stood by his wife for her "drunken native guys" Facebook rant about aboriginal panhandlers downtown.

"Each and every day," Hart said Thursday, preaching under the bridge to the converted, "we are reminded of our brothers and sisters who are on the street. Each and every day we see the people who are hungry, homeless. We see each and every day the social problems that face Winnipeg. But you know what? Each and every day people keep passing by and they turn a blind eye to that. They just see it as an eyesore for the city... they don't see the humans, and the human element."

When speeches were over, and the feast in Hall's honour was just starting, his uncle Raymond Hall shared a private story that the blonde woman didn't hear. About how Hall had been at his father's funeral just the week before he drowned, and how it affected him.

"He was taking it very hard. Very. I guess he couldn't handle no more losses, eh?"

I took that to mean he and others in the family suspect Hall didn't want to live anymore when he waded into the river.

"Yeah," Raymond said.

The blonde woman had almost reached the parking lot when Raymond and I finished talking. She had left the gathering without sharing her story about seeing the man in the water. But she needed to tell someone before she left. So now she was standing away from people still gathered under the bridge, sharing the story with an aboriginal woman she happened to meet as she was leaving, still weeping inconsolably.

In her emotional state, she began at the end instead of the beginning.

"When Faron went under," she said, "when he took his last breath, that's when the other fellow started having the heart attack."

The "other fellow" was the water-taxi's 65-year-old captain, Al Smith, who had tried to battle the current to reach the man in the water.

"And I'm a nurse," she said, still sobbing, "I did CPR."

She meant on the captain, who didn't have a pulse when she started, but whose life she helped save with the aid of another woman on the boat.

But before that, the blonde woman had tried to use a hooked stick, that was too short to reach Hall, to desperately throw him a life-jacket or even a paddle. Something, anything he could grab on to. But he was too weak and they couldn't get close enough.

"We did everything we could for Faron," she said, still sobbing.

That's what she wanted the family to know. That's what she had come to share.

"I just wanted someone who knew him to know that we tried really hard."

She also wanted them to know his last words before the river took him away.

"Help me."

I want the family, and you, to know something else. The blonde woman, and the others on the boat, recognized the man in the water was aboriginal, but not that he was the famous Homeless Hero.

All they saw was what mattered. That he was the human being, a human being struggling to live.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 23, 2014 B1

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