79-yr-old brothers plucked from icy waters of Lamèque Bay

·4 min read

Twin brothers from Lamèque say they are lucky to be alive after an ice fishing mishap this weekend.

Gilbert and Robert Savoie, 79, were smelt fishing Saturday afternoon an estimated 300 to 600 metres offshore on Lamèque Bay, when their shanty sank through the ice.

Their younger brother, Fernand, 75, realized what was happening before they did, said Gilbert.

The former firefighter happened to glance over from his own fishing hut, which was closer to shore, and saw his brothers' structure slowly sinking.

"We never even noticed from inside the cabin," said Gilbert, in a French-language interview.

Submitted by Gilbert Savoie
Submitted by Gilbert Savoie

Fernand ran out to warn Gilbert and Robert, but as he arrived the ice suddenly shattered and the shack fell into about seven feet of frigid salt water.

The twins were stunned. For a moment, they thought they were done for.

The water pressure was strong, said Gilbert, as it gushed up through the fishing hole and out the doorway.

"My brother tried to get out," he said, "but there was only a small part of the door left."

Robert was stuck in the doorway and the water was up to his neck as his brother Fernand and friend Gabriel Albert desperately tried to pull him out.

Albert is also in his 70s, estimated Gilbert.

Bathurst Fire Department/Facebook
Bathurst Fire Department/Facebook

"I was still stuck in the cabin," he said, "but I told myself I had to get out."

With a rush of adrenaline, he tried to push his brother out. And then managed to get himself out through an opening of about two feet.

With the help of the other two men, Gilbert and Robert both managed to get out of the water.

They said they would never have been able to do it on their own.

"When you're in the water and full of water, you can't climb out," said Gilbert. "It's impossible. You can't touch the bottom."

Afterwards the Savoies reflected that they also owed their survival to a friend who had visited them in their shanty a bit earlier in the day.

He popped in to ask if the fish were biting and left the door partly ajar when he left.

"If it had been closed we wouldn't have been able to open it," said Gilbert.

Julie Tremblay/Radio Canada
Julie Tremblay/Radio Canada

Robert said he thinks it was by more than pure chance that his brother Fernand, a 52-year veteran of the fire department, saw it happening.

"We are believers," said Robert. "We believe that there is someone above who saved us."

Fernand worked quickly and kept his cool throughout the rescue, while the ice threatened to collapse at any moment. Once the men were out, he immediately began first aid to restore their body temperature.

There were people fishing in about 15 other cabins, said Gilbert, but no one else noticed what was going on.

Later that afternoon he received panicked phone calls from friends who saw the roof of the shanty sticking out of the ice. They were sure the brothers had drowned.

Google Maps
Google Maps

The shanty was brought to shore a couple of hours later. At low tide the water there is only about two feet deep.

Normally the ice in Lamèque Bay is about 30 cm (a foot) thick at this time of year, according to the brothers. But this year it's only 7-15 cm (three to six inches).

Fishermen in the Bathurst area report similar conditions.

François Lejeune/Radio-Canada
François Lejeune/Radio-Canada

Unusually thin ice conditions prompted the Bathurst Fire Department to issue a warning Saturday aimed at skaters, ice fishers and snowmobilers.

"If you have any doubt about the thickness of the ice, do not take any chances, find a safe place to practice your sport," read a post on the department's Facebook page.

According to weather data from Charlo airport, the average temperature in the first third of January for the area was -5.5 C. The normal average temperature for January is -12.6 C.

December's average temperature was -3.7 C. The normal average for that month is -7.9 C.

And December had 15 days above freezing, compared to the average 8.5 days.

"It's quite unusual," said Dominic Martel, meteorologist at Environment Canada.

Martel expects the end of January will be colder.

Gilbert Savoie said he'll be back on the ice as soon as it's safe.