Firefighting student blames trainer for Adam Brunt's drowning death in 2015

Had the firefighting students in the icy Saugeen River in February 2015 been given knives during their water rescue course, Adam Brunt might still be alive, his colleague told an inquest Monday.

Terri Jo Thompson says fellow firefighting student needed a knife to free himself

Adam Brunt, 30, was killed during a water and ice rescue training course near Hanover, Ont., on Feb. 8, 2015. An inquest is revisiting the events leading to his death. (Provided by Brunt's family)

Had the firefighting students in the icy Saugeen River been given knives during their water rescue course in February 2015, Adam Brunt might still be alive, his colleague told an inquest Monday.

Instead, the 30-year-old drowned in Hanover, Ont., when his survival suit got caught on a piece of metal under the water.

Terri Jo Thompson, one of five others in the river with Brunt on Feb. 8, 2015, testified that she only learned that their instructor had a knife during the inquest.

It's a piece of equipment that all of the students should have been given, she said, alleging that Brunt might have used it to cut himself free.

"We had nothing in that first five minutes," she told CBC Toronto. "We had nothing to work with until Hanover Fire [Department] brought us tools."

Brunt was underwater for roughly 15 minutes, according to the testimony of several witnesses.

Questions of responsibility

The events leading up to his death, and that of firefighter Gary Kendall — who died in a course given by the same company five years earlier — are the subject of the coroner's inquest.

One of the questions that has come up repeatedly throughout the inquest has been why private companies offering the arduous ice and water rescue courses are not regulated by the province.

Brunt and Thompson were among 12 firefighting students taking the two-day water and ice rescue certification course with instructor Terry Harrison.

Terry Harrison, who was teaching the course Brunt took, told CBC Toronto there was nothing anyone could have done to save the man. (CBC)

Thompson testified Monday that although the group spent part of the first day in the classroom they were never given a plan about what to do in case one of them was injured during the exercise.

And she questioned whether all of her colleagues were fit to be in the water. Harrison had been drinking with his students the night before and at least one person showed up with a hangover for the river test, Thompson said.

And the exercise itself was physically demanding and dangerous. 

It involved the students donning survival suits, then leaping into the water near a dam to get the feel for moving through fast-flowing water, she said.

You know that you're losing. This is turning into a recovery; it's no longer a rescue.- Terri Jo Thompson

Thompson said she was frightened after the first few times, but said she trusted her instructor would have the expertise — and said that the bravado inherent in a firefighting environment prompted her to stay quiet.

"I know people will say, 'Why didn't you say anything?" she said. "I have had to live with that for the last two-and-a-half years."

The moments leading up to Brunt's death involved diving into the current and then allowing the power of the water to push them along, Thompson said. Six dove down, but only five resurfaced.

None of the students had phones, she testified, nor did Harrison have any life-saving equipment there. They could see Brunt stuck beneath them, she said.

Terri Jo Thompson testified that she believed she and other firefighting students were not given proper equipment to safely complete the water rescue course. (CBC)

'Time is just ticking'

Instead, they flagged down a car to call 911. A resident brought an axe and they tried to cut away at the ice they believed might have caught Brunt's suit.

"And time is just ticking and ticking and ticking," she said. "You know that you're losing. This is turning into a recovery; it's no longer a rescue."

Brunt was pulled from the water after the Hanover Fire Department arrived with life-saving equipment.

He was pronounced dead in hospital.

Harrison told CBC Toronto that there was nothing that could have been done to save Brunt.

"No equipment would have done anything, in reality, at that time," he said. "I don't believe there's an instructor anywhere else in the province that could have done anything different that day."

But Thompson said that the province ought to regulate this type of training.

"I ultimately feel like the trainer and the fire service of Ontario failed us," she said. "The leadership in this province failed us."

With files from Makda Ghebreslassie