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Citizens receive awards for bravery after saving man in False Creek

Gary Connell: "I'm a human being. There was no thought process. Just get it done."
Richard McDonald and Gary Connell received awards Thursday for civilian bravery after saving a man who fell off his boat last May in False Creek.

Gary Connell was out walking his dogs on the morning of May 11, 2023 near Granville Island when he saw fishermen in their boats frantically pointing to something in the water about 30 feet off shore.

He first thought it was a dead seal.

“A wave came and up comes a red running shoe, and I go, ‘That’s not a seal, it’s somebody,’” Connell said.

He left his dogs Chia, Copper and Lily on shore, scaled down a ladder and into the water. At this point, another man, Richard McDonald, who was working construction in the area heard the commotion and went to help Connell.

“I saw this gentleman here, and he was white as a ghost,” recalled McDonald, pointing to Connell. “I thought he was the guy that was in trouble. But then I saw him hanging on to this guy's last piece of clothing — and the guy was sinking, he was going down. He was a huge man.”

'Dizzy and didn't feel right'

Connell saw bubbles in the water and maintained hope the man was still alive. He did the best he could to keep the man’s head above the surface. A third man named Nick joined in the rescue and the trio managed to get the person out of the water.

Connell performed CPR and the man began to breathe.

“He took a deep breath, and he wanted to get up,” McDonald said. “He was wondering who the hell we were.”

Connell: “He wanted back in the water.”

McDonald: “Yeah, then he was saying he wanted to walk it off, that he was dizzy, that he didn’t feel right.”

Turns out the man had a big gash on the back of his head, which was likely a result of hitting his head while on his boat. Paramedics arrived, treated the man and transported him to hospital.

“I saw him when he came out of the hospital about two weeks later,” McDonald said.

“He got pneumonia from the incident and whatnot. But the day he got released from the hospital he was right back down to the dock and he goes, ‘I'm setting up my boat because I'm going to the island.’ So that’s the kind of sea dog he is.”

Connell and McDonald shared their story Thursday after receiving the Vancouver Police Board’s highest award for civilian bravery, the Award of Merit. They received their awards from Chief Adam Palmer and Mayor Ken Sim at the department’s annual awards ceremony at the Roundhouse community centre.

The awards recognized citizens for various acts of bravery, including saving a woman from a suicide, helping police catch a homicide suspect, pulling a man off the Cambie Street Bridge guardrail and giving first aid to a stabbing victim.

Mayor Ken Sim and Chief Adam Palmer with Const. Scott MacDonald and Det. Const. Blake Chersinoff at the Roundhouse community centre Thursday. Photo Mike Howell

'One-in-a-million type of day'

Det. Const. Blake Chersinoff and Const. Scott MacDonald were among the many officers recognized for bravery and given the Award of Valour.

Chersinoff was stabbed in the shoulder and chest area while trying to free a two-year-old boy snatched from an armed man in an apartment building on Keefer Street in July 2021.

Chersinoff was stabbed after being the first officer into the suite. MacDonald took the suspect to the ground, while Chersinoff hurried to the boy.

Constables Riley Robazza and Jesse Lee also joined in the arrest and used a Taser to get control of the man and put him in handcuffs. They received Chief Constable’s commendations for their tenacity in stopping a man intent on harming police.

After the ceremony, Chersinoff said he was extremely humbled by the recognition.

“It was one-in-a-million type of day — a very challenging day,” said the 15-year veteran, who took five weeks to recover from his wounds. “I had some PTSD, but that has been resolved and is being worked on, as well.”

His training, he said, is what made the difference on that day.

“You know what your job is, you know what you have to do and it's just a matter of putting that into play,” Chersinoff said. “You don't know exactly what circumstances you're going to get when you get there. You do some problem solving and rely on your teammates to get the job done and accomplish our goals.”

The suspect, meanwhile, was found not criminally responsible because of a mental illness.

Police officer of the year

Police officers were also recognized for major investigations involving gangs, recovery of firearms and drugs. Const. Jason Doucette was singled out for his efforts to get long-term care for a woman living with a mental illness; the woman generated more than 650 calls in 2021.  

Sgt. Jana McGuinness was named “police officer of the year” and Leah Marlay “civilian professional of the year.” Craig Jacks and David Wosk were given the “community safety leader award” for their volunteer work.

Meanwhile, Connell and McDonald said they were grateful to be recognized for saving the fisherman from False Creek.

Why did they do it?

Connell: “I’m a human being. There was no thought process. Just get it done.”

McDonald: “Same here, no thought process. Just empathy.”

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