When seconds seemed like hours: The night 4 Miramichi teens crashed to their deaths

When emergency responders arrived at the scene of the SUV crash that claimed the lives of four teenagers in Miramichi, N.B., last Saturday, all they could see were four tires sticking out of the water.

The driver of the 2016 Nissan Rogue had lost control on an unlit, rain-slicked stretch of Nelson Street, sending the vehicle smashing into an ice-covered pond, where it landed upside down, said Brian Cummings, deputy chief of the Miramichi Police Force.

Waiting at the roadside were four frantic teens from another car who had watched in horror as their friends' SUV veered off the road as it tried to pass them.

Just before the 10:30 p.m. accident, they had all been out together celebrating Emma Connick's 18th birthday, said Cummings.

"So you can just imagine what the scene was like when our officers got there — four kids that are telling us that four of their friends are in that car, and the only thing visible from that car was the four tires sticking out of the water."

Police arrived within about four minutes of the 911 call from another passerby. Firefighters and paramedics soon followed.

But Emma, of Barnaby, Cassie Lloyd, 17, of Escuminac, Logan Matchett, 17, and Avery Astle, 16, both of Strathadam, were all later pronounced dead in hospital, leaving the small northern New Brunswick communities heartbroken.

"I've been doing this job for 30 years and this was by far the worst incident that I've ever responded to," said Cummings.

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The first of the funerals will be held today — a service for Emma at St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Church in Nelson, and for Cassie at Sainte-Anne Church in Baie-Sainte-Anne.

A joint funeral service for Logan and Avery will be held on Saturday at the Sunny Corner Arena.

Cummings declined to discuss the results of the autopsies, citing respect for the families.

"I will say there were no surprises. This is exactly what we anticipated it was going to be, which is a tragic accident and one we're going to be feeling for a long time."

No evidence of racing

Police believe that Logan was behind the wheel of the SUV owned by his parents and that road conditions and speed were contributing factors in the crash.

Cummings declined to say how fast the southbound SUV was travelling in the 80 km/h zone.

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Although the SUV was passing at the time, it was in a legal passing section of the two-lane road and there is no indication any racing was involved, he said.

"Absolutely none."

Cummings could not say what, if any, restrictions Logan had on his licence under the province's graduated driver's licence program.

Alcohol and drugs were previously ruled out as causes of the crash.

"We have no indication of any drinking," Cummings said.

"We're not looking at anything criminal at all."

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The teens had been celebrating at McDonald's, and he believes they were taking Emma home when they went off the road just north of the intersection with Route 118 — now marked with a makeshift memorial of flowers, candles and stuffed animals.

The pond, at the bottom of a steep embankment between two large mounds of sawdust from the old mill, was, at most, 60 feet (about 18 metres) wide and five feet (1.5 metres) deep, said Cummings.

But the water was freezing cold and jet black. And the SUV was far from shore.

Neck-deep water

Emergency crews took a 7.3-metre ladder off one of the fire trucks and extended it out over the water and jagged chunks of ice.

"But it was just a little bit too short," said Cummings.

"So really a lot of challenges and not much chance."

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They waded in neck deep, but couldn't get into the vehicle. The doors, damaged in the crash, were jammed.

The SUV, still on its roof, had to be flipped upright to get the teens out. But the 25 "or more" police officers, firefighters and paramedics at the scene needed to wait for a tow truck to do it.

"Seconds seemed like hours while they were frantically trying to get this [SUV] turned over. But there was just nothing that they could do until they could get a line onto it."

'Extremely dire'

Cummings estimated the teens were submerged in the water for 15 to 20 minutes.

By the time they were extracted from the vehicle, "things were extremely dire," he said, without elaborating.

Crews immediately started CPR and quickly transported the teens to the Miramichi Regional Hospital, just five kilometres away.

Hospital staff continued the emergency chest compressions and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and tried to get the teens' core body temperatures back up.

Catherine Harrop/CBC

"I can tell you that what I witnessed at the hospital from the doctors and the nurses and the interns and just everybody was nothing short of heroic," said Cummings.

Numerous personnel were working on each victim — "well over 100" in total, once every available staff member was called in, he said.

"I've never witnessed such efforts to bring back people from such horrific circumstances like I did that night."

There were times when it looked like they were "making some gains," particularly with Avery, who was transported to Moncton.

'There wasn't a dry eye'

By around 3:30 a.m., when it became clear "there was no hope anymore, there wasn't a dry eye in the hospital," Cummings said. "That included nurses and security guards and doctors and police officers and firefighters and paramedics."

And extended members of the four families.

"It was just a very, very tragic, devastating night."

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Several critical-incident stress debriefings have been held for first responders since then, said Cummings, who has attended two of them.

He knew a couple of the victims personally and for the first 10 minutes of the call, didn't know if his youngest son was in the SUV.

Sean, who turned 18 just two days prior, was a very good friend of Emma's, said Cummings. They started in kindergarten together and were scheduled to graduate from James M. Hill Memorial High School together in a month, along with Cassie. (Logan and Avery attended North and South Esk Regional High School.)

As Cummings raced to the scene, his wife Helen was trying to reach Sean on his cellphone. She finally tracked him down at a friend's house.

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The debriefings are not mandatory because everybody deals with stress differently, but Cummings encourages everyone to attend.

"We know these days that post-traumatic stress disorder can have some dire consequences down the road," he said.

"You know, Miramichi is a small community, right, and you can almost come across nobody on the street who doesn't have some connection to either the kids or the parents."

Some officers have taken some time off to "recoup and allow their emotions to go down."

"It's been a very trying week for the whole community and we've got some trying days ahead of us, for sure, but you know, the Miramichi is resilient, and we'll just do what we can to make sure we get these families through these tough days."