Calgary firefighter wins bravery medal for daring avalanche rescue

Benoit St. Pierre had just finished a run down the side of Hero's Knob, a popular backcountry ski spot in Kananaskis Country, when he heard a thunderous noise. What he did next earned him a Medal of Bravery from the Calgary Fire Department.

Calgary Fire Department recognizes 27 local heroes who went 'Beyond the Call'

Benoit St. Pierre has won a Medal of Bravery from the Calgary Fire Department for his daring avalanche rescue that saved a boy's life. (CBC)

Benoit St. Pierre had just finished a run down the side of Hero's Knob, a popular backcountry ski spot in Kananaskis Country, when he heard a thunderous noise in the distance.

Without hesitation, the off-duty firefighter grabbed his safety gear, and skied straight toward the avalanche debris, saving the life of a boy trapped beneath the snow.

The backcountry heroism has earned St. Pierre a medal of bravery from the Calgary Fire Department as part of its 'Beyond the Call' annual award.

In all, 27 people — both citizens and emergency services personnel — were recognized on Thursday for their heroic acts in the past two years.

Other recipients include Anitha Alias, who saved a man's life by administering CPR to a fellow transit passenger who collapsed, along with Taylor Tymensen and Leif Vanden Berg who called 911 and performed first aid on an unconscious biker in Fish Creek Park.

"It's a privilege to recognize these extraordinary citizens today," said Fire Chief Steve Dongworth. "All of these individuals went above and beyond for their fellow Calgarians — a true reflection of the great city we live in."

Daring rescue

St. Pierre remembers it was a beautiful day back in March 2014. He had just finished skiing with his wife Sara, and was waiting for his friend Mike, when the avalanche hit.

"It sounded like thunder that was coming from far away," St. Pierre told The Calgary Eyeopener on Thursday.

They looked over and saw someone trying to ski down towards the debris, and knew right away that a desperate rescue mission was underway.

Their friend, Mike, already on his splitboard — a snowboard that splits apart into two skis— took off right away. St. Pierre and his wife put skins on their skis, activated their avalanche beacons, and made the difficult uphill trek.

"It was really exhausting. I remember not breathing at all ... the only thing I'm thinking is, 'I'm not going fast enough'."

By the time they arrived, Mike had already located one person on the edge of the debris field. The man's face and lips were blue and St. Pierre wasn't sure he'd make it.

With Mike working to save the man, St. Pierre and his wife set out to find other victims.

Using his snow probe, they located another buried skier — the son of the first victim — and started digging frantically.

"The debris [was] big chunks of snow. So I'm thinking, 'My little shovel is not going to be able to work'," St. Pierre said, but he kept going.

"The victim was face down ... I don't hear any breathing ... All of a sudden, I hear some kind of a gurgle."

St. Pierre kept digging and digging to make an air pocket.

"All of a sudden, he really did [take] a good breath of air."

With the boy safely out, St. Pierre again set out to find other victims, only stopping when all four skiers were declared safe — including the boy's mother and father, who made it.

"At the end, once I knew that it was over [and saw the father walking away], then it was quite a relief. And then you start taking a real breath."

St. Pierre received a message of thanks from the boy's mother on Facebook. But since he doesn't use it much, he didn't see it until about six months later.

With files from The Calgary Eyeopener.