In Montreal, journalist Louis-Philippe Messier travels mainly on the run, with his desk in his backpack, in search of fascinating topics and people. He talks to everyone and is interested in all areas of life in this urban chronicle.
On the afternoon of August 17, an unidentified citizen overcame the emergency services of the Canadian Army and the Sûreté du Québec by jumping aboard his inflatable to save two young sailors in danger who had been clinging to the rocks of the river for about three hours. threshold. of the Lachine rapids.
I found this “volunteer rescuer” to tell me his story and show me, in the heart of the rapids, why they are so sneaky and so dangerous.
“It was the sound of the army helicopter that alerted me and, when I understood the situation, I went to look for the two young men with my boat,” Christian Hébert, 54, explains to me.
“For me it’s easy: I know the rapids like the back of my hand. The map is in my head. I spent all my summers here, at the family cabin on Devil’s Island. I have been driving boats here since I was 11,” adds this man who has been making his living as a landscaper for 26 years.
René Lévesque and Maurice Richard, photographs in their living room show, were among the guests at the Héberts’ chalet and fishing trips.
“My first memory of a rescue was when I was 12 years old: I was a Speedo swimmer from Kahnawake who could no longer return to shore. »
Apparently, being a hero is passed down from father to son. “I saw how my father Roger put himself in the right place, because the lifeguard who does not know the rapids can quickly put himself in danger,” warns Hébert.
Additionally, on October 17, 2021, firefighter Pierre Lacroix lost his life while trying to tow a disabled boat.
A wave of the wave caused the boat to capsize towards the rescuer, who was trapped.
Since this accident, Montreal firefighters no longer intervene in the rapids, according to a decision by the CNESST.
In other words, when Christian Hébert voluntarily helped the two young men, the professionals were forced to watch him do it… without having the right to intervene.
Mr. Hébert takes me to the whirlpools in his 22-foot Airsolid inflatable modified with a turbine.
It was his childhood friend and sponsor, mechanic Daniel Guilbert, who adapted this old fireboat last year to allow it to sail in half a foot of water.
The current is stronger than we imagine.
“Last week I was returning from Devil’s Island and I caught a bulldog dragged by the current. His masters had thrown the ball too far into the river. »
“From here, upstream, everything seems smooth, there seem to be no obstacles, but there are “flats,” rock banks, almost everywhere. You can destroy your propeller and capsize. »
“Here is the place where firefighter Lacroix lost his life: look at the fall. »
A kind of “mini-fall” in this place reserves an unpleasant surprise for those who do not know these places well.
“A moment before it is calm, it seems like the right place to hang the boat, but suddenly everything tips over and if they knock you out, it’s over. »
Some sections of the rapids seem calm…then threaten to capsize boats on top of their occupants. Photo Agency QMI, JOEL LEMAY
Couldn’t he or his son pass on some of his knowledge about the Lachine rapids to the emergency services?
“I wrote a letter to Mayor Valérie Plante to offer her my services as a consultant or to formalize all these rescues that I have been doing since my childhood with my father and that my 21-year-old son will continue doing after me. »
So far the phone hasn’t rung.
Will the citizen volunteer once again have to save people unofficially? Probably. Because the rapids are stealthy and do not wait for the bureaucracy to unblock them.
In addition to disabled boaters and lost sailboats heading towards the dangerous whirlpools, Mr. Hébert has already rescued suicidal people from the Mercier Bridge: a man who had changed his mind once in the water and wanted to live and an unconscious woman died more late. at the hospital.