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Sweatman inquest set to begin Monday

ABOVE: Next week
ABOVE: Next week's inquest into the death of Sheila Sweatman is expected to hear the results of several separate investigations and view video evidence. BELOW: Sheilah's father Wynn, seen here with wife Teddi at their daughter's memorial in Nelson last July, says the family hopes lessons will be learned.
— image credit: ABOVE: Teddi Sweatman BELOW: Megan Cole

A coroner’s inquest into the death of Nelson Search and Rescue volunteer Sheilah Sweatman finally gets underway Monday, with her family expecting to hear about mistakes in the recovery mission that claimed her life.

“Our objective is clear: to get the reasons for this loss made public so search and rescue and others can avoid these things happening again,” her father Wynn Sweatman told the Star from Winnipeg, where the family lives.

Sheilah, 29, of Ymir, belonged to a swiftwater team called out on June 29, 2011 to a bridge south of Creston, where a car was submerged in the Goat River. While trying to attach a tow chain to the vehicle, she went overboard and didn’t resurface. Her colleagues found her body the following day.

The inquest is scheduled to last five days next week at the Nelson courthouse.

Presiding coroner Matt Brown and a jury will hear evidence from subpoenaed witnesses to determine the facts surrounding Sweatman’s death and make recommendations to prevent similar deaths. Testimony will be heard Monday through Thursday while Friday is reserved for jury deliberations.

The evidence is expected to include the results of several separate investigations, including those by WorkSafeBC and Emergency Management BC. Wynn Sweatman, who has read the reports, said they draw the same broad conclusions.

The inquest will also hear from witnesses and view video evidence — Sheilah’s death occurred during filming of the reality show Callout: Search and Rescue, and the tragedy was captured on film.

“[We want] to identify what went wrong and who’s responsible,” Wynn said. “I don’t mean that in a personal sense, but in a systemic sense.”

He anticipates witness testimony will reveal planning failures that led to his daughter’s death and said it is potentially a “landmark case.” However, he added, the family believes search and rescue’s work is important and deserves to be better funded.

“We would really not like to hurt the search and rescue community but raise money for them,” he said. “Sheilah was passionate about what she did and it’s important work. Search and rescue needs way more financial support. We’re committed to trying to help.”

To that end, the family plans to meet with MLA Michelle Mungall and other politicians.

He noted that Central Okanagan search and rescue, which recently christened its new rescue boat after Sheilah, previously only had a zodiac to patrol the whole of Okanagan Lake — and it took a contest win to help replace it.

The inquest was originally scheduled to be held in June but was postponed “to ensure availability of all required witnesses as well as counsel for parties with standing,” according to the BC Coroners Service.

Sheilah’s parents, brothers, and one sister will be coming from Winnipeg, Vancouver, and Belgium to attend the hearing.

“This has been an awful 16 months for my family,” Wynn said. “We miss Sheesh every second of every day. She was a powerhouse of energy and loved her work with search and rescue.”

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