Tuesday, March 13, 2012

#21 Ian Wheeler

Yesterday, on the anniversary of the crash of Cougar 491, I wrote about Robert Decker, the sole survivor.

Today, I write about the man who saved Robert Decker's life - Ian Wheeler.

I have known Ian since 1995, when I first went to work at the Hibernia construction site at Bull Arm. He was an Emergency Medical Attendant at that time, and from the very start, I knew that Ian was someone different. He struck me right away as a capable, competent, confident guy, who did a wicked Homer Simpson "Doh!" To this day, I associate "doh" with Ian, not Homer!

Ian and I had the pleasure of doing a patient transfer together, from Melbourne, Florida to St. John's. We flew down on a private jet, picked up a husband and wife, and brought them back to St. John's. This was in December, 2001. I remember that on the way down there, we flew over Manhattan, and could see the darkness of the World Trade Center site, and also the Statue of Liberty. We were both scrunched up at the windows of the jet, trying to see what we could see in the darkness.

Since first meeting in 1995, our paths have parted and crossed many times, especially when Ian went to work for Cougar as a Search & Rescue (SAR) Technician. It would be an odd thing not to see Ian when I was coming and going from the offshore.

Only nurses could work as medics offshore, and long before the Cougar disaster, I felt that Ian Wheeler was definitely more competent than half the RNs that were let loose out there.

I remember well March 12, 2009, and the days that followed. I did not immediately know that I knew passengers who were on the flight. In some cases, it wasn't until the next day that the phone calls and emails arrived, naming the names. So it was, too, about finding out that Ian Wheeler was the man who had gone in the water to rescue Robert Decker.

The only thing I would change about that whole rescue scenario, if I could, would be for Robert Decker to have been able to know that the man floating next to him was the absolute best person who could have been there with him that day, no question in my mind whatsoever.

Here is the story in Ian's words, from the CBC News website.

If you think about it, it is possible to sort-of-kind-of imagine just how challenging that rescue must have been, even for a well-trained team. The thing that most people don't necessarily take into consideration, however, is this:

Ian Wheeler worked for the company that lost that helicopter that day, and with it, two pilots - colleagues who he knew personally - as well as all those passengers that he knew as well. This was not an impersonal, arms-length rescue. These people were like family, and I do not overstate the case. 

I know the shock I felt when I heard the news, and then as I started to hear the names. Knowing that feeling, one cannot possibly imagine how he, and the rest of the team in that rescue helicopter, must have felt when they arrived at the crash site - no helicopter with floats deployed, no hands waving from life rafts, just two orange-suited figures floating in the water among the debris, one alive, one dead. Their colleagues, their chopper - gone. The shock and horror that they must have felt, and still they could carry out their mission, under that kind of stress. Incomprehensible.

As you may know, (I wish the entire world knew), Ian was awarded the Governor General Award for Bravery for his role in the rescue of Robert Decker. The announcement was made last November, and the actual award ceremony took place on February 24, 2012.

With a team-spiritedness that is typical of Ian, he accepted this honour not on his own behalf, but on behalf of the entire rescue team that completed that mission that day.

Click this link to see the NTV coverage of the announcement of the award:
Cougar Rescuer Rewarded for Bravery

As much as I criticize the Canadian Government and the office of the Governor General, etc., etc., etc., all I can say is that on this occasion, they got it absolutely right when they chose to acknowledge the bravery of this man.

Click this link to see Ian receive his award at Rideau Hall, Ottawa:
Acts of Bravery Recognized in Ottawa

I have spoken to Ian on a number of occasions since that day three years ago. He has said that along with the satisfaction of a job well done, he is haunted by the losses of that day. The anniversary is one full of mixed emotions for him, for sure.

My wishes for Ian are similar to those I have for Robert Decker; that he has the love and support he needs to weather the losses which are still, no doubt, fresh in his mind, and to allow himself to feel the pride in knowing that he, and his team, did all they could do that day, and did it well.

I am honored to know a real-life hero. Well done, Ian. Well done.


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