Cst. Jeff Smiley, second from right, is joined by his parents, Walter and Ruby Smiley, and girlfriend, Kim Burnett, in the greenhouse of Rideau Hall. Smiley was presented with a Star of Courage medal at Rideau Hall on Dec. 5. (Submitted photo)
A former Hantsport resident who put his life on the line to save a 73-year-old woman trapped in a sinking vehicle is the proud new bearer of a Star of Courage medal.
Cst. Jeff Smiley vividly remembers the day he jumped in the frigid St. John River to rescue Shirley Foster.
The date was Jan. 8, 2012. A frantic Foster called 911 from inside her sinking car after losing control of the vehicle, soaring over the riverbank and smashing through the ice. Freezing cold water poured into the submerged vehicle while a trapped Foster waited for someone — anyone — to save her.
The closest RCMP jurisdiction was too far from Maugerville, a community just outside of Fredericton, for members to reach Foster in time.
The morning briefing had just ended at Smiley’s detachment when the urgent call for assistance came in.
Smiley, who was raised in Hantsport, was the first to arrive on the scene, with Cst. Samantha McInnis following close behind.
“I could see this car basically totally submerged except for the rear bumper sticking out.”
Smiley donned a life jacket provided by McInnes, grabbed a window punch and headed over the riverbank holding a piece of rope McInnes could use to pull him back to shore if the current overpowered him.
“This river moves very quickly and it’s very powerful and I didn’t want to get pulled under the ice, ‘cause there’s no fighting that. Once you’re under, you’re under and that would be the end,” he recalled.
The icy water was a shock to Smiley’s system.
“It was a lot colder than I expected,” he said, noting that he later learned the temperature of the water was -15 C.
“I figured I’d jump in, swim over, pull her out and get out but that’s not what happened.”
Each forward stroke was a battle as Smiley struggled to swim to the car while fighting to get his breathing under control.
“It took every ounce of energy I had to swim over to that car.”
Smiley managed to break through a window and pull a door open, but Foster was nowhere to be found.
“It was so dark under the water that I couldn’t see her so I just felt around until… I could feel a body.”
He pulled the unconscious woman out of the car and made his way to Cst. Shawn Fraser, who helped him hoist her onto the ice.
“With the weight of the three of us on the ice, the ice broke again.”
Fraser was able to pull himself out of the water, and the two officers worked together to get Foster on stable ground, but Smiley was starting to lose control of his hands.
“Three minutes in the water was taking its toll on me.”
Unable to bend his fingers, Smiley, the father of a young daughter, unknowingly let go of the rope that connected him to McInnes. He fought to catch the rope as his colleague tossed him the lifeline.
Smiley narrowly managed to wrap the rope around his arms before he started to lose consciousness.
“I remember closing my eyes and then Cpl. Dwight Doyle was yelling at me to open my eyes. He had pulled me up onto the ice, but he couldn’t get out far enough to get me,” Smiley recalled.
“We were very proud of him for what he did and very thankful to God that it turned out good for everybody.” Ruby Smiley
“He was yelling at me to stand up.”
Smiley mustered up enough energy to sprint to a squad car, where he stripped off the wet clothes and blasted the heat. Meanwhile, the other officers performed CPR on Foster.
“When my joints and my hands were defrosting it was pretty painful — I’ve never experienced anything like that.”
The terrifying ice rescue mission, completed in just less than five minutes, was a success.
Smiley says Foster spent several months in critical care before she was released from the hospital. He saw her alive and well for the first time during an emotional ceremony in which all of the officers involved in her rescue received a St. John Ambulance Life Saving Award.
“She pulled me aside there and showed me a picture of her granddaughter and said to me that it really didn’t matter what the future held because, as far as she was concerned, she was dead in that car and any time that she had now was just a bonus, and she really just wanted to make it to one last Christmas with her family,” the Fredericton Police Force member recalled.
“And she did.”
Smiley, who began his career in policing eight years ago, saw Foster a few times before she died of a terminal illness in April.
“She would see me in Canadian Tire every so often and say, ‘Do you remember me?’ ‘Yes, Shirley I remember you,’” he said with a laugh.
Smiley says he takes comfort in knowing the police officers responding to Foster’s car accident were able to give her some more time with her family.
“She just wanted one last Christmas and she got it, so it feels good that all that took place.”
Governor General David Johnston presented Smiley with a Star of Courage medal during a ceremony held in Ottawa’s Rideau Hall on Dec. 5. McInnes, Doyle and Fraser were awarded Medals of Bravery at the same ceremony.
Smiley’s parents, longtime Hantsport residents Ruby and Walter Smiley, watched as their son was one of three Canadians honoured with the prestigious award recognizing heroism in the face of great peril.
“It was really a very moving experience and very humbling to meet all of these great men and women,” said Ruby, reflecting on the event recognizing the heroic efforts of police officers, military professionals and civilians.
Ruby, an educational assistant at Hantsport School, and Walter, a retired police officer who served for 35 years, have three sons — two police officers and one paramedic.
“I pray and ask the Lord to look after them,” Ruby said.
She says Smiley’s entire family — especially his grandmothers Mildred Messervey in Hantsport and Veronica Smiley in Enfield — were overwhelmed with pride when they learned of the daring ice rescue mission.
“We were very proud of him for what he did and very thankful to God that it turned out good for everybody.”