A Helping Hand

Jay - surveying the scene of the crash

Thomas Clifton was walking back to his home at Newcastle Place on Nanaimo’s Terminal Avenue on Thursday, June 3rd, when a horrible sound ripped through the early evening. A car had careened off the road, ripped through seven sections of guard rail at the side of the thoroughfare and then launched down into a ravine. Smoke was billowing, and traffic had screeched to a stop, swerving to avoid the debris.

The car in the ravine – photo credit Nanaimo News Bulletin, 3 June 2021 – capture from video

Shock reverberated, an eerie silence pervaded the evening … and a couple of people jumped into action.

Thomas didn’t hesitate. Ignoring calls for him to stay put and not get involved, he raced across the road, clearing away metal strewn across lanes and guiding traffic to a halt, and then raced to where the car had gone down into the steep ravine.

Jason Watterson, another resident at Newcastle Place was already there. When the accident happened, Jay (as he is called) was standing in the courtyard at Newcastle. He heard a huge smash and immediately started running out, ready to help. He raced across the street with Brian, one of the Newcastle security guards, to try and help.

“I didn’t do anything I wouldn’t want done for myself,” says Jay.

At the accident scene, Jay went to the passenger side of the vehicle and persuaded the passenger to roll window down their window so Jay could turn off the ignition, reducing the immediate danger of explosion and fire, though the car was still teetering precariously, ready to roll. It was lodged up against a tree by only the front corner of the passenger side – the only thing that had stopped it from plunging further down the bank – but could dislodge at any moment. Jay and Brian got first one and then the other passenger out of the car and up the ravine to safety, handing them into the waiting hands of Thomas.

“I hope anyone would do it,” Thomas said modestly, a few days later, still unnerved by the incident and the potential it had held for further disaster.

Thomas Clifton - lending a hand

It was his search and rescue training, taken several years ago but never put into formal use, that made him run through traffic towards the action. He had lived as a young person near the old Malahat highway on southern Vancouver Island – a place were car accidents were frequent and expected.

He recalls once when he was a kid, a terrible accident happened within earshot. He tried to get his stepfather to help but in the end no help arrived for more than an hour, though the ongoing sound of the car horn could be heard from kilometers away. That incident, and the lingering terror of knowing there were people hurt with no one to help, were what prompted him to get training in search and rescue. He had not had much call to use it until last Thursday.

For Jay, it was also an obvious thing to go and help. When the crash happened, all he could think was “Let’s go!” He is no stranger to taking action, having been lauded in the past for saving a stranded seal, and as a young person for saving a child in difficulty at Cultus Lake. He has been on the victim side, as well, having survived a mugging and robbery himself a few years ago. After living through that experience leaning largely on his own skills, he wants to make sure that others have help when it is needed. When asked if he would jump into action again, he does not hesitate. “Of course, absolutely.”

The quick actions of Jay, Thomas and Brian doubtless saved lives. By the time the fire department showed up, both victims had been freed from the car, much of the metal and debris had been moved off the road, and traffic was calm.

Small heroism; big difference. Lives are changed by such things, every day.

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