Surrey realtor and avid angler Sokha Eang was on his way to fish for steelhead on the Vedder River on Tuesday when he came upon a vehicle upside down in a water-filled ditch on Keith Wilson Road in Chilliwack.
What Eang didn’t know at that moment at around 8:30 a.m. was that red Honda Civic inside were two teenagers trapped, one 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. “I quickly tightened up my boots and went.”
Already on the scene was Adam Nelson of Mission, who had just dropped his son off at school in Chilliwack. Nelson was standing on the chassis of the overturned car when Eang showed up wearing his fishing waders.
The two arrived at right around the same time, according to Nelson who said bystanders told him there were people inside.
That’s when the two strangers to each other got to work to try to rescue whoever was in the car.
Into the water Eang went, up to his waist in murky ditch water. 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.
The two are W.J. Mouat secondary students. Ruffell’s aunt Suzzie Harding said the young man is in his final year of high school, accepted into a program where he is taking mechanics at UFV.
Another student who had been travelling in a car behind the two, Garret Visser, was in the ditch holding Ruffell’s head out of the water. Eang said that young man was suffering from the extreme cold, so he took over.
Ruffell suffered broken ribs and both his lungs were punctured, possibly filling with ditch water. He was unconscious. But Eang and Nelson could only partially open the door, not enough to really assess Ruffell or pull him out, just enough to hold his head out of the water.
Luckily, Eang had those waders on before he even arrived on the scene.
“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.
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.
As they got him out as paramedics arrived. A fire crew was also on scene and they dropped a ladder down the embankment to help get the young man out.
While he was still in the car, trapped, Ruffell did regain consciousness, coughing up water and even opening his eyes.
“I was slapping his face to shock him into being with us,” Eang said. “He had slurred speech, lethargic. He said his name was Kyle.”
Nelson said they were unable to give him CPR and he coughed up the water on his own.
“He’s a strong kid. He saved his own life essentially by being able to start breathing on his own.”
It wasn’t until they got him 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.
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.”
Some are calling Eang and Nelson heroes, something most heroes balk at. In response to comments on social media, Eang said he had to act.
“Thank you to everyone for their kind words. It really was nothing and not helping wasn’t an option.”
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,” Nelson said.
As for young Kyle Ruffell, he’s not doing well. He is currently at Royal Columbian Hospital in critical condition with his mother at his side.
His aunt Suzzie Harding told The Progress that he was making “teeny tiny” improvements by Thursday, but the doctors aren’t making any promises and that it’s hour by hour at this point.
“We are hoping for the best,” she said, adding that everyone is so grateful for the actions of those on the scene. “He would have drowned if these people did not hold him above water.”
Harding set up a GoFundMe to help her sister – who is a single mother with two other children – with parking and gas to get to-and-from RCH.