A Chilliwack man who was driven off the road by an alleged drunk driver miraculously saved his own life and the lives of his two young daughters after his truck plunged into Cultus Lake.
Dennis Saulnier was driving eastbound along Columbia Valley Road near the Jade Bay boat launch on Saturday, May 16 with four-year-old Keegan and two-year-old Brinley. They were on their way to pick up dinner and ice cream.
A man driving a light-coloured sedan sped up behind him.
“He was on my tailgate so close I couldn’t see him in the rearview,” Saulnier said.
The driver tried to overtake Saulnier once, but he nearly collided with another vehicle before pulling back in behind Saulnier’s 2008 Ford F-350.
The second time he pulled out, Saulnier swerved right to avoid getting clipped. His tires caught gravel so he started to brake, but then the truck started to spin toward the mountain.
He turned the wheel to the left and gave it a bit of gas. Nothing happened for a second, and then suddenly the truck snapped forward and the next thing he saw was the briny, green water through his windshield.
When the truck hit the water, he immediately unbuckled his seatbelt and spun around to face Keegan and Brinley.
“I told them to relax,” he recalled. The truck’s nose began sinking into the cold, murky water.
Within seconds he unbuckled Keegan’s carseat and then Brinley’s.
By now he was waist-deep in water, and he could see they were dropping fast and when he looked up he could see light through the sunroof.
With one blow, he punched his fist straight through the sunroof.
“As soon as that happened, it was like an explosion inside.”
The door seals broke. Windows shattered. Water came gushing in.
He closed his eyes and held onto the driver and passenger seats to prevent getting sucked out of the sunroof. When he opened his eyes a second later, all he could see was the cloudy, green lake water.
The girls were gone.
“That was the first moment of panic I had when I couldn’t physically see or feel my girls.”
He reached out and felt the roof, doors, seat and floor multiple times, but he felt nothing.
“I was scared to leave. What if they were still in the vehicle?”
He realized he was running out of air. But as he tried to swim through the sunroof, his leg was caught. He reached down to untangle himself, and slipped through the hole in the sunroof.
When he broke the surface, there was debris but no splashing. He couldn’t hear any crying. The girls must be trapped in the cab, he thought, fighting the panic.
If they were still under water he knew he had one minute to save them.
He took a quick breath and dove back down. About 10 feet down he realized hadn’t taken a big enough breath so he resurfaced.
As he was about to go back under, he spotted Brinley’s ponytail about 10 feet in front of him.
He quickly swam and grabbed her. She clung to him and cried: “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!”
Where was Keegan?
He scanned the water. He swam toward a shape. As he got closer, he saw a pair of eyes. It was Keegan.
He was just five feet from reaching her when she went under the water. She opened eyes wide as she started to sink, but he grabbed her and pulled her to the surface.
He had to get to shore. A large crowd of people had gathered at Jade Bay boat launch, people were on the water on jet-skis, but no one jumped in to help.
So Saulnier tucked Brinley under his right arm and started throwing Keegan towards the shore a few feet at a time while doing a sidestroke before grabbing her again.
He did it repeatedly until he was utterly exhausted.
“Every time I threw, it felt like I was going under water more and more.”
When he was about 10 feet from the shore, a man finally helped by grabbing and holding onto Keegan. When she got to the rocks and was out of the lake she puked up a bunch of water.
Saulnier calls the entire incident “miraculous.”
No one was injured.
“I used every single one of my angels that day,” he said, admitting he has aways been afraid of deep, murky water.
They were later told by RCMP that the driver was drunk and caught by police at a road block set up near Main Beach and is accused of impaired driving and failing to remain at the scene of a collision, said Saulnier’s wife Rianna.
RCMP were notified of the erratic driver by another motorist who was also passed unsafely by him. That same driver who called about the allegedly impaired driver also told RCMP that he saw Saulnier’s truck go in the water.
While RCMP couldn’t comment on any charges, they did confirm that a 43-year-old man from Popkum was stopped and taken into custody. The investigation is being forwarded to BC Prosecution Service, said Cpl. Mike Rail.
The next day, the truck, which had sank 12 metres and rested on a rock, was pulled out of the water. Had the truck not been on that rock, it would have sunk about another 20 metres into much more frigid water. (See photos below)
More than two weeks after the collision, Keegan and Brinley are understandably still traumatized. It’s an ordeal to get them into the car, they’re scared driving at 10 kilometres an hour on their own street, and when a car passes them on the highway they get upset.
They used to go to the lake every day, but not anymore.
The Saulniers are considering therapy for their daughters which, at their age, is done through play. Right now during the COVID-19 pandemic, that therapy is not available. They’ve seen their daughters re-enact underwater rescues while playing with their dolls and toys.
As for Dennis, the first two days after the incident were hard. He was tormented by the “what ifs.” But once he accepted the fact that everything worked out OK, that’s when his mental state returned to normal.
”If I wasn’t able to stay calm in hairy situations like that, I think it would have been a different outcome for sure,” Saulnier said. “I still get to hold my girls and nothing is worth more than that.”