UPDATE – PLEASE NOTE – GRAND FORKS FIRE RESCUE WERE FIRST ON SCENE AND ATTEMPTED THE RESCUE FROM THE RIVER NOT SEARCH AND RESCUE.
A Grand Forks man has died after a tragic bridge-jumping incident at the old nursery rail bridge on July 8.
The BC Coroners Service confirmed on July 10 that 53 year-old Joe (Morey Joseph) Lafreniere died after jumping into the Kettle River from the nursery rail bridge and being swept away from the current.
“Mr. Lafreniere was with a group of acquaintances who were jumping recreationally from the old nursery rail bridge into the Kettle River on July 8,” said coroner Barb McLintock of the BC Coroners Service. “When Mr. Lafreniere jumped, he was immediately observed to be in trouble in the river but his companions could not get him to shore before he was swept away by the current.”
CORRECTED Grand Forks Fire Rescue were called and pulled Lafreniere from the river about 20 minutes later. He was immediately transported to hospital but could not be resuscitated.
Mitch Harrison and wife Louise Rodrigues were friends of Lafreniere and were with him at the bridge that day. They tried to rescue him but were unsuccessful.
“We’re pretty much like family to him,” said Harrison. “He was like a brother to both of us.”
Harrison said it was clear after Lafreniere jumped in that he wasn’t strong enough to get to shore.
“There wasn’t really a strong current that day, but strong enough that he couldn’t swim out of it,” said Harrison. “He immediately called for help. I’m not a very strong swimmer by any means, so my wife jumped in there. I saw him about a foot under the water. Louise was about a foot away from him. I told her where he was but she couldn’t see him because he was under the water.”
Harrison said that as Lafreniere tried harder to swim to shore he became weaker and weaker and was eventually pulled under and down stream.
“I knew there was going to be a problem when he jumped,” said Harrison. “I told him, ‘I don’t think you should jump. Something could happen.’”
Harrison said Lafreniere already has a bad back and neck from previous injuries.
Harrison said the three of them were the only ones at the site until a pair of teenagers showed up.
The teenagers jumped in the water first, followed by Rodrigues and then Lafreniere.
The teenage boy also went into the water trying to rescue Lafreniere. The girl called 9-1-1 and then went to a nearby house to find help, said Harrison.
The helpers attempted to go down the river and cut off Lafreniere but they couldn’t find him.
Harrison was also concerned his wife (Rodrigues) might get swept away but she managed to pull herself ashore with his help.
“I was worried about her too,” he said. “I thought she was taken too.”
Grand Forks Fire Rescue found Lafreniere about 20 minutes later near the Gilpin Bridge, recalled Harrison.
Harrison and Rodrigues said they have been up to the bridge and laid flowers in memoriam for Lafreniere.
Harrison said Lafreniere had had some hard times recently, particularly with his house burning down in April, 2013.
Harrison said he was able to save Lafreniere back then by getting him out of the house.
The couple say they will miss their good friend who always made them laugh with his Alf impressions.
“He was a really nice guy,” said Harrison. “He was a super, super nice guy. He’d give the shirt off his back for anyone. But after the fire, he didn’t have anything left. He really had nothing left.”
Rodrigues said she won’t go down to the river anymore.
“It’s too hard for me,” she said. “There are too many memories there. It’s hard. Sometimes it’s just hard enough to sleep. He’s right there in my head. I told him not to jump—but that’s Joe. He had to try.”
“Seeing your best friend drown in front of you—that’s not cool,” said Harrison. “I didn’t get any sleep that first night. He was like a brother.”
The couple take solace in the time they did have with their good friend.
“(Joe’s) sister told me we were meant to be in his family,” said Harrison. “She said, ‘You saved him from the house fire and Louise tried to save him from drowning.’ I guess we were meant to be family.”