My Near Death Experience

In early December, 1973, on a tugboat owned by C.A. Pitts, we were getting ready to tow two barges back to Toronto from Southbay Mouth, Manitoulin Island, and, as I was the deckhand, and 21, I did the jumping between vessels.  The weather turned mild, with heavy, wet snow falling, so we could enter Lake Huron without having ice build up on the tug. After we left the dock, I leaped onto one barge to hook up its running lights.  

Suddenly I heard a yell from the chief engineer, Bill Breaker, and jumped back onto the tug. Breaker was looking down to where I could see the second engineer, Rick Robinson, fallen into the frigid water below, with his head just breaking the surface. I lay down to reach him on the slippery deck, in danger of being pulled into the water too. With Boyd Leitch, the first mate, kneeling on my legs, I grabbed Rick’s shoulder. His eyes were wide open in fear, and he said, “Don’t let me go Donnie.” “I won’t Rick,” I reassured him. But the tug was drifting in closer and closer, and his head was going to be crushed. So I turned my shoulders into the space between the barge and the tug, still holding on to Rick. The danger for me, I expected, was breaking a shoulder, but I thought I would at least save his head, and possibly his life. Well the tug kept coming and I knew I couldn’t get out of the predicament even if I wanted to. The pressure on me soon became tremendous, and I thought my ribs were going to splinter, or that my head was going to pop off. To myself I said, “Wow, that’s it, I’m gone.” I said goodbye to my parents and many siblings, before I lost consciousness.  

The next thing I knew, I was saying hello to Bruce McDonald, a friend from back home.  He said, “It’s okay Donnie, relax.” He motioned towards an inviting, glowing light, unlike any I’d ever seen. There was noise too, a rumbling sound, and as I got near I saw a tunnel-like whirlpool. I trusted Bruce and asked “What’s happening?”  A male voice, kind and matter of fact, said, “You are drowning.” I could see my body on the shore, and my mother and two sisters, MaryLou and Lorna, crying at the kitchen table.  I shouted “NO!” and woke up under water, not knowing where I was. Swimming upwards, fully clothed, I reached the surface and took a huge breath of air. Snowflakes were falling around me, and all was dark except for a slight glow in one direction. I dog paddled towards it, and when I got near enough, read the name “Flo Cooper” on the stern of a boat. Swimming alongside, I heard its engine and realized that I worked on that boat.  After I came around to the bow of the tug, Bill Breaker shouted out “MCRAE!”, and my name came back to me. Rick was still in the water, but by now was holding on to a short ladder. He couldn’t get his leg up to the first rung, so I reached up to help, ignoring the pain. Putting my head under his butt, with others pulling from above, we got him up out of the water. I climbed up, gazed into the night sky, and knelt down, praying in thanks.   

On Christmas Eve soon after, driving home with my mother and passing the 4th concession where Bruce had been raised, she said, “Oh Donnie, you probably didn’t hear but Bruce McDonald drowned last fall.” I didn’t know what to think.  I could not talk to anybody about my accident because I didn’t think it was possible that it had happened.  

There were many close calls when I fell into the water again. I was still having flashbacks and nightmares, and was even suicidal at times. Most of the memories came back to me at an alcohol treatment centre, and I was diagnosed with PTSD. Not knowing what else to do with my life, I returned to work, but I had so much anger that I was terminated. I am now unemployed, and unemployable, but I am alive. 

Donnie McRae

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