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Survivor's story: B.C. man recalls being swept away in Squamish River in 2020

Man's harrowing ordeal underscores the importance of water safety and situational awareness.

One minute, Amiro Harati says he was enjoying a day at the beach with friends, and minutes later, he was clinging for his life to a log in the rushing Squamish River. 

It was Aug. 16, 2020—the first summer of the pandemic—Harati, of Burnaby, was not familiar with the area, but had come out to the Squamish Valley for the day with friends. 

There was barbecuing, the sun, and a few beers. 

After cooling off in the water close to shore, Harati and a friend decided to race each other to a little outcropping across the water. 

But soon after starting to swim, Harati was being swept away by the current, and his friend was nowhere to be seen.

Harati is sharing now about what happened to him in the hopes that others can learn from it.

He acknowledges that he didn't actually know he was swimming in a river until it was too late. He thought it was a lake. 

As he was moving further away in the current, he saw his friend running along the shore, screaming at him to swim back.

Harati tried to swim against the current, but couldn't get far.

"I had already exhausted 90% of my energy at that point," he recalled.

"I see people lining up on the shore looking at me struggling." 

He said, when he looked ahead in the river, it seemed to drop off up ahead, so he was trying to grasp anything he could to keep him from moving further downstream.

"There was one last hope, a tree trunk underneath the water." 

He was able to latch onto the tree with his legs. 

"I think it had been six or seven minutes, at that point, in the water, and I was completely out of energy; my hands and fingers were completely numb. And that's when I tried to re-collect myself," he said.

The people on shore put a large floaty into the water for him to grab, but he couldn't latch on. 

People on shore were yelling at him, but he couldn't respond, though he tried.

"I couldn't speak," he said. "I was out of energy."

The folks on shore kept throwing him the rope, and eventually, he grasped it and kept hanging on. 

“I was able to hold on to it and as soon as they pulled me in [to shore], that's when I went black," he said. 

Paramedics arrived, and he was taken to Squamish Hospital.

He doesn't recall the faces of all the people who helped him, but he is "super grateful for them," he said.

He suffered some cuts, and was exhausted and sick for days after, but knows he is lucky to have survived.

Water’s power

BC Coroners Service data shows most drowning deaths between 2012 and 2022 occurred in rivers and creeks (29%), followed by lakes and ponds (28%).

The most common activities associated with drowning deaths were boating (19%), swimming (18%), and falling into water (17%).

There were 87 drowning deaths in B.C. in 2020, the most in any year in the 10-year period. Between 2012 and 2022, an average of 76 people per year died from drowning in B.C. 

There have been a few drowning or near-drowning cases over the last few years in the Sea to Sky Corridor.

Last weekend, a woman was swept away in the Mamquam River. After an extensive but unsuccessful search over days, first responders ultimately suspended the search.

Harati advises others heading out to recreate near rivers this spring or summer to know where they are going and take responsibility for their own safety. 

"Do your homework before going," he said.

He said he has always felt he was independent and strong, but this incident showed him that no one is invincible. 

"It definitely humbled me," he said.

Plan and be aware around water

Sandra Riches, executive director of BC AdventureSmart, agreed with Harati.

Ultimately, it is best to "eliminate the avoidable," Riches said. 

Doing the research about where you are going is key, she said, including what the weather will be and what kind of footwear you should have on.

She said, "Easy access gives people [a] false sense of security," regardless of whether they are visitors or locals. 

Staying safe means having situational awareness: being alert to where you are, what the dangers might be and what is happening around you.

Carrying the right equipment, including a life jacket, can be lifesaving even if you are just spending time near the river's edge.

And have a plan ahead of time for what will happen if something does go wrong.

"Understanding what our group dynamics are and what we will all do in an emergency," she said.

"Don't drink and play on the water," she added. "That is a big factor because [alcohol] changes our attentiveness and responsiveness to situations as a group or an individual."

Riches said it is important people know how cold the water can be, especially at this time of year, regardless of how nice it gets outside.

She pointed to the 1-10-1 principle spelled out on the organization's website, which relates to the three phases of cold water immersion and the approximate time each phase takes.

  • 1 minute—cold shock: An initial deep sudden gasp followed by hyperventilation that is six to 10 times more rapid than normal breathing. You have one minute to get your breathing under control.
  • 10 minutes—cold incapacitation: Gradual loss of effective use of your fingers, arms, and legs. If not wearing a life jacket, drowning is likely because of swim failure.
  • 1 hour—hypothermia: Even in ice water, it could take one hour before becoming unconscious due to hypothermia. To lose consciousness, the body's core temperature has to go below 30 degrees celsius; this time can vary depending on the temperature of the water.

In addition to the AdventureSmart site, Riches pointed to the BC Search and Rescue Association website, which has tons of helpful education options and information.

"We have a pretty awesome province. It's great to play, but we've got to prep for that play,” she said. 

Please note, while The Squamish Chief reached out to BC Emergency Health Services, local SAR and the Squamish Valley Campground, which is not yet open for the season, we were unable to independently verify Harati's account of his rescue by press deadline.

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