Sydney man thanks couple who rescued him after dramatic 1986 crash

Donnie MacNeil was just 19 when his car landed upside down in water near Baddeck, N.S. Ever since then, he has thought about the people who stopped on the side of the road to help him.

'I stayed for a bit thinking, "Someone will see me, someone will rescue me,"' Donnie MacNeil says

This was the state of Donnie MacNeil's truck after it was pulled out of the water in 1986. (Submitted by Donnie MacNeil)

For more than 30 years, Donnie MacNeil has wanted to thank the couple that brought him to the hospital after a traumatic highway accident near Baddeck, N.S.

Thanks to social media, this week he finally got to do just that.

MacNeil posted to Facebook on Friday, asking if anyone remembered picking him up on Feb. 20, 1986.

'Someone will rescue me'

MacNeil said that for 30 years, he had wanted to thank the couple that stopped to help him. (Submitted by Donnie MacNeil)

At the time, the 19-year-old MacNeil was driving his red Toyota truck on the highway from Antigonish back to Sydney, N.S., along the south side of Kellys Mountain.

For a brief moment, he fell asleep at the wheel. His truck hit the rails of a wooden bridge with such force that a beam ripped through the truck.

The impact caused the vehicle to flip and land on its roof in the embankment.

"I stayed for a bit thinking, someone will see me, someone will rescue me," MacNeil said. 

"It got pretty cold pretty fast and water was coming in and I thought, no, if I'm going to get out of this I've got to get myself out."

The wooden beam from the bridge went through the front of the truck. (Submitted by Donnie MacNeil)

The door wouldn't open because of the packed snow, so MacNeil rolled down the window and dug until he could get the door cracked open enough to escape.

"I didn't really know until I started to move that my foot was next to my ear. Something was going on, it wasn't quite right," he said.

MacNeil hoisted himself up on the undercarriage of the truck and dragged himself across to the bank.

"I fell in the brook several times and kind of crawled out through the water and made my way up the side of the beams of the bridge. It took quite a while, probably hours, to do that."

Trying to flag down cars

Near the side of the quiet highway, soaking and frozen, and with a leg broken in seven places, MacNeil couldn't even stand to make himself seen by passing cars.

"The cold had pretty much taken all the good out of me," he said.

Michael Maclellan, his then wife Cathy MacNeil and their four-month-old son were driving back to Sydney from Baddeck when Maclellan noticed something in the ditch.

He told his wife he thought it was a person lying down with his hand up, so he turned the car around.

"Sure enough he was there and he was in bad shape... He was extremely cold, vibrating, because he was soaking wet," Maclellan said.

"It was just fluke that I saw him."

Michael Maclellan and his then wife were driving with their four-month-old son when he spotted something in the ditch. (Submitted by Michael Maclellan)

Maclellan said his wife drove to the hospital in Baddeck, while he squeezed in beside MacNeil and tried to keep him warm.

MacNeil said his memories after that are foggy. Finally warming up and covered in blood, he could feel the extent of the pain in his leg.

"The leg kind of exploded from the knee down. There was no bone left from a couple of inches below my knee to my ankle, both bones in my leg were kind of shattered," he said.

Years of wondering

At the hospital, Maclellan said they made sure doctors had MacNeil and then, "that was the last I ever heard of him."

"They got me in there," MacNeil recalled. "The last thing I remember was the guy [Maclellan] coming in looking for some paper towel to get the blood out of his truck."

And then moments later, he came back and asked for a bucket and a mop," MacNeil said, chuckling.

MacNeil was transported to Sydney and spent the next nine months in and out of the hospital, undergoing multiple surgeries on his leg.

But in the days after the accident, he said he tried to find the couple, asking hospital staff and police. "Nobody seemed to know who these folks were."

Last week, MacNeil drove by the bridge again. And that's when he decided to try searching for them online. His post was shared 5,500 times and eventually, Cathy MacNeil saw it and shared it with her ex-husband, according to Maclellan.

After that, Maclellan and Donnie MacNeil started talking over Facebook. 

Belated thank you

It turns out, in the summer of 1986, Maclellan and his family moved to Calgary, where he still lives. But every summer, he returned to Cape Breton, and would drive along the bridge and wonder what happened to the man he saved.

"He figures I saved his life. I don't know," Maclellan said.

"We're not doing much more than anybody else would have done in the same situation. Most people would have gave somebody assistance."

As for MacNeil, "I did get a chance to give my belated thank you. I wasn't sure if I had done it at the time or not given the state I was in, so I wanted to make sure that was the first thing I did."

Maclellan said he hopes to meet up with MacNeil on his yearly return to Nova Scotia next summer.

'You just dive in'

MacNeil, far right, said he has told the story to his children over the years. (Submitted by Donnie MacNeil)

MacNeil said the accident is a story he's told to his children over the years.

"I was a young guy, I was 19. I considered myself pretty tough, screw the broken leg I'm going for it," he said.

"That's kind of how I lived my life ever since. You just dive in."