The coroner’s inquest into the death of Nelson Search and Rescue volunteer Sheilah Sweatman opened Monday with an emotional statement from her mother, who described her “fierce but tender daughter.”
Through tears, Teddi Sweatman told the five-man, two-woman jury and a packed courtroom that Sheilah was “a strong-willed, dedicated” search and rescue member with “tremendous courage to face any physical or moral challenge.”
Sheilah, 29, drowned in the Goat River south of Creston on June 29, 2011 while trying to recover a submerged car. The inquest, before presiding coroner Matt Brown is hearing evidence to determine the circumstances around Sweatman’s death to make recommendations to prevent similar deaths.
Testimony is scheduled through Thursday, while Friday has been set aside for jury deliberations.
Teddi Sweatman shared pictures of her daughter with the jury — a portrait was placed on an easel near their box — and provided them with a booklet with pictures of her house, garden, and examples of her artwork.
Teddi said it was “extremely important to tell about the vibrant and talented, strong-willed woman she was.” She said Sheilah was filled with “passion and compassion, and full of ideas and desire.”
Born in Winnipeg, Sheila was the fourth of five children. An active outdoorswoman, she loved the mountains and came to BC after university, living first at Big White and Vernon before coming to the West Kootenay.
She worked part-time at Nelson Animal Hospital, and became a member of Nelson Search and Rescue almost as soon as she arrived. It quickly became a big part of her life, her mother said.
“She loved a challenge and never backed down from anything.”
Teddi told the inquest when her husband spoke with Sheilah the day before the tragic mission, she didn’t express any reservations about it.
They learned of her death when a police officer knocked on their door at 4 a.m.
WorkSafeBC investigator defends report
The bulk of the day was spent hearing testimony from WorkSafeBC investigator Nigel Corduff, whose report concluded Sheilah died after her leg became tangled in a steel rigging cable. She was pulled from her raft by the submerged car.
The report concludes the rescue plan was inadequate because there was no provision to rescue someone who got caught in the cable.
Corduff testified that when the vehicle was eventually removed several days later, the river level was much lower and a nylon strap cable was attached to the vehicle. He said the recovery procedure was discussed so there would be no handling of steel chain.
Asked if the nylon cable was available to searchers on the day of Sweatman’s death, Corduff said yes — but was not asked to explain why the steel cable was used instead.
Corduff was also asked if he had any recommendations to prevent such a tragedy. He said the operation’s planning was flawed, but could have been improved with a hazard checklist — had search members seen the cable hazard in writing, it might have changed the outcome, he suggested.
During cross-examination, lawyer Cameron Ward, who is representing the Sweatman family, cited a policy that stated Emergency Management BC could not authorize search and rescue volunteers to recover human remains, and therefore they should not have been on the water.
He also questioned the urgency of the operation given that water levels were about to drop. Corduff says he never received a satisfactory explanation, but noted one searcher felt “disheartened” to discover two weeks later that he could have walked across the river.
Ward asked why an RCMP dive team did not attend the site. Corduff said he was told no one was close by, and further it was an “inappropriate environment” for divers given the shallowness and opaqueness of the water.
Ward said he expects evidence later in the inquest from another expert who disagreed with two of Corduff’s conclusions, and questioned the deliberate use of weaker rope to keep Sweatman’s cararaft in place, as well as the use of video cameras in the operation.
However, Corduff stood by his findings, saying he questioned how much the other expert knew about the case. He said the rope system’s failure was a “large concern” from the outset of their investigation, but all members of the search team recounted the same philosophy for its use.
He also said there was no incentive to provide more dramatic footage as part of a reality TV show and it provided searchers a change to review their activities.
“Rather than a hindrance to safety, the mere fact we have shows what a benefit cameras can be,” Corduff testified. He said the video does not show the actual tasks being performed any differently than would be expected.
Ward also suggested Sweatman’s colleagues may have given up too soon in attempting to rescue her, but Corduff also rejected this, noting some people resisted when the stand-down order came.
The testimony is being led by inquest counsel John Orr. Emergency Management BC, WorkSafeBC, and Search and Rescue also have legal representation.
A schedule provided by the BC Coroners Service says Tuesday’s witnesses will include several search and rescue members and RCMP officers, as well as video taken of the incident. A pathologist and toxicologist will testify Wednesday, along with Sheila’s colleague on the raft, and the tow truck driver. Emergency management personnel will take the stand Friday, and then Sheilah’s father Wynn will conclude the testimony.