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U.S Coast Guard honours those who helped after man fell off the Ambassador Bridge

Bernita Flowers and Terri and Tionne George, bystanders who saw Spencer Baker fall from the Ambassador Bridge, received awards on Friday, Feb. 9, 2024, in  recognition of their quick actions that led to Baker's rescue.  (Michael Evans/CBC - image credit)
Bernita Flowers and Terri and Tionne George, bystanders who saw Spencer Baker fall from the Ambassador Bridge, received awards on Friday, Feb. 9, 2024, in recognition of their quick actions that led to Baker's rescue. (Michael Evans/CBC - image credit)

When Bernita Flowers brought her family to the Detroit riverfront, expecting to watch the mail boat come and go on a July evening, she wasn't expecting to see a man fall from the Ambassador Bridge — nor expecting her family to play a critical role in his rescue.

Bystanders and the crew of the boat who rescued a Canadian man from the Detroit River were honoured in a ceremony on Friday.

Flowers and her family, Terri George and Tionne George, and the crew of the J.W. Westcott mail boat, were awarded the Captain David P. Dobbins award for excellence in search and rescue from the U.S. Coast Guard.

Collectively, their efforts saved Spencer Baker, an ironworker from Essex County, after he fell more than 40 metres into the Detroit River from the Ambassador Bridge on July 12, 2023.

Michael Evans/CBC
Michael Evans/CBC

"We've been coming here since I was the age of my granddaughter here, and I always like to watch the boat go out and take the mail or bring it in," Flowers said in accepting her award Friday afternoon.

It was her family that saw Baker fall, and ran to alert the crew of the Westcott, yelling and pointing to where Baker had fallen.

"Who would have thought — we were delayed 20 minutes before coming here —thank God up above, if we had got here those few minutes different, we wouldn't have had the rescue.

"It was a point where we're at the right place at the right time."

The crew of the J.W. Westcott was aboard the boat that day docked along shore. They heard people screaming, banging on the door and pointing into the water. From there, they jumped into action to rescue Baker, who was brought aboard the boat injured but alive, less than four minutes later.

"We're well-practiced for this. But any boat captain wouldn't be anything without the crew that's with him," said Sam Buchanan, captain of the J.W. Westcott, in accepting his award.

"These folks did the hard work of getting Mr. Baker aboard and then getting him back."

Buchanan recalled a joke he made as Baker, miraculously alive, started talking after the 43-metre fall.

"We just kind of kept him talking," Buchanan said. ''I said 'I'm Sam and this is not the afterlife.'"

Paul Dalpiaz is another member of the crew who was on the boat that day, and had actually just started working on the Westcott about a month before Baker's rescue.

"We were all amazed he was alive," Dalpiaz said of Baker's rescue. "I feel blessed that he is alive and I feel blessed that we were part of his rescue."

'Unheard of' for man to survive fall from Ambassador Bridge: Harbour master

Peter Berry is the Windsor harbour master and director of core operations for the Windsor Port Authority.

He told the crowd Friday that Baker is the only person he's aware of who has survived the fall from the Ambassador Bridge.

Michael Evans/CBC
Michael Evans/CBC

"The actions that the Good Samaritans took really saved the man's life," Berry said. "They saw the J.W. Westcott as a place of refuge, as a place to run to ... The crew that J.W. Westcott got underway and recovered [Baker] within four minutes.

"It's totally unheard of for somebody to survived that fall and Mr. Baker's very lucky that day that these people were there."

The critical thing, Berry said, is that bystanders took action to save Baker's life. Without that, the outcome might have been different.

"Take action and report and seek help," he said. "That's what saved Mr. Baker's life."

It was actually the first of what would be two rescues for the J.W. Westcott crew that summer. Just 10 days later, the crew rescued a fisherman who fell over the shoreline retaining wall and was clinging to a structure in the strong river current.