A memorial for the Nelson Search and Rescue member who died in the line of duty last month is expected to draw large numbers of search volunteers and professional emergency workers from across BC and further afar.
The event in honour of Ymir’s Sheilah Sweatman, 29, will begin at 11 a.m. on Saturday, July 23 at Nelson’s Lakeside soccer fields, although many details still have to be finalized.
“Right now we’re just working out the logistics,” says Colin Wiebe, vice-president of the BC Search and Rescue Association, which is organizing the service along with the local office of the Provincial Emergency Program, City of Nelson, and regional district. “This is unchartered territory for us.”
Sweatman’s family is expected to come from Winnipeg to attend and will approve the memorial plans, Wiebe says.
Search and rescue volunteers from inside and outside BC have also expressed interest in being present.
“We have 83 teams and we’re a pretty tight-knit community among 2,500 volunteers,” Wiebe says. “There’s a potential for the hotels to be full.”
He also expects police officers, firefighters, paramedics, and others from agencies including Canada Border Services and the Department of Fishers and Oceans.
“You name it. The uniform services that typically band together in these circumstances to show their support,” Wiebe says.
Although he said it was too early to predict exactly how many might turn out, “in our initial planning meetings, it was believed this may be the largest event Nelson has had.”
Wiebe notes more than 3,000 people attended a funeral for two BC Ambulance paramedics who died in the line of duty in Tofino last October.
“We have no idea what the potential is,” he says. “We’re planning big and hoping we’re prepared. We’re asking the agencies being invited to RSVP so we can scale it.”
Wiebe says in addition to using up all available accommodation in Nelson, they may have people stay in Castlegar and Trail and provide a bus.
Local search and rescue groups are also stepping up by providing places for their provincial colleagues to camp, he adds.
“We want to make sure the people who are coming are able to attend and show their respects and support for her family and the local search and rescue group that suffered this loss,” Wiebe says.
The playing fields will be the venue because it is one of the few places that can handle such a large gathering, and also because the family has asked that it be held outdoors.
The memorial is to include an honour guard procession from the airport, although it is still being discussed with the Nelson Police Department.
“We want to celebrate Sheilah’s life and her service to the community but are also cognizant that it may cause some disruptions, so we want to make sure we have a route sorted out that is accessible and easily organized,” Wiebe explains.
There is no word yet what dignitaries might attend or who might speak.
A family service was held Friday in Winnipeg. Four members of Nelson Search and Rescue went, along with colleagues from the Penticton and South Columbia branches, according to Wiebe. Winnipeg’s police chief was also present.
Sweatman drowned in the Goat River near Creston on June 29 while part of a swift water rescue team that was investigating a submerged vehicle.
Her body was recovered the following day.
Other local searchers also gave their lives
Sheilah Sweatman’s death was widely reported as “the first time in BC Search and Rescue history that one of the province’s search and rescue volunteers was killed while in service,” based on an RCMP statement.
However, while Sweatman may be the first member of a ground search crew to die in the line of duty, there have been other fatalities from the air.
Notably, on July 7, 1996, pilot Rick Dendys, 45, of Nelson, and passengers William Bing, 53, of Nelson, and Rick Ayotte, 44, of Trail died when their plane crashed on Mount Crawford while searching for another light aircraft that went down north of Kokanee Glacier. (The pilot and one passenger of the missing plane were found alive, but a second passenger, a 10-year-old boy, died at the scene.)
Dendys, Bing, and Ayotte were flying with PEP Air — the Provincial Emergency Program’s air search and rescue unit, comprised of volunteer pilots, spotters, and navigators who help the Canadian Forces, RCMP, and other search groups.
PEP Air belongs to Civil Air Search and Rescue and works closely with 442 Transport and Rescue Squadron, based in Comox.
It’s one of a handful of agencies that falls under the provincial emergency program’s umbrella. Others include BC Search and Rescue, emergency social services, BC Road Rescue, and emergency radio communications.
At the time of the 1996 crash, an emergency program training director called it the first deaths of search and rescue team members in 15 years.