A Calgary firefighter was awarded the Medal of Bravery by the Governor General at a ceremony in Ottawa on Thursday for saving four people from drowning in the ocean.

Brian McRae was in Veradero, Cuba, for a friend’s wedding three years ago when — twice in one day — he had to spring into action to save two separate pairs of swimmers after they got caught in dangerous rip tides.

McRae told the story to David Gray on the Calgary Eyeopener on Thursday.

  • Listen to the complete interview with Brian McRae:

The first act of heroism happened in the late morning when the former competitive swimmer noticed a commotion on the beach.

Two swimmers were about 100 metres away, in distress, waving for someone to help them as they got sucked farther out to sea.

“I just swam out, as fast as I could … grabbed them both and lugged them in, I guess,” he said.

Later the same day, as McRae was about to go into town, he was called into action again. This time two more swimmers were in trouble about 200 metres from shore.

'I guess it's just training, you know'

“My first thought was, ‘not again.’ And then, I guess it’s just training, you know. You just kind of assess the situation and figure out what needs to be done,” he said.


Brian McRae was given the Governor General's Medal of Bravery on Thursday for saving four people from drowning in Cuba in 2011. (Calgary Fire Department)

Wearing bulky cargo shorts that would have slowed him down, McRae stripped down to his underwear and swam as fast as he could against big waves to reach the pair.  

“The first rescue was a lot easier, that’s for sure. My arms were a lot more fresh,” he said.

“I’m not really lifeguard-trained, I’m just a swimmer. So I just thought, what I did in the morning worked good, so I thought I’d just do the same thing again.”

McRae said the two men he brought to shore told him later they had been out there for 45 minutes.

“I met these guys later on in the evening at the resort and, yeah, we talked about it, hugged a bit and maybe a tear or two,” he said.

“Really great guys and I’m just glad I got the opportunity to help them out.”

McRae received one of 42 Medals of Bravery, which recognize acts of bravery in hazardous circumstances, awarded at Rideau Hall on Thursday by Gov. Gen. David Johnston.

Another Calgarian honoured

Another Calgary man was among those recipients.

William Dennis Ward helped rescue two Inuit hunters who had fallen through the ice in 2011 near Frobisher Bay, Nunavut.

Ward reached down from a helicopter to rescue the two victims, pulling them into the aircraft while pilot James Kitchen hovered over the water, said the Governor General's office in a release.