OPP honours 7 individuals for lifesaving actions in fatal Lake Rosseau boat crash

OPP Central Region Awards Ceremony Photo Courtesy of OPP

On May 26, Jon Duff received a Commissioner’s Citation for Lifesaving at the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) Central Region Awards after rescuing victims of a fatal boat crash that occurred last summer on Lake Rosseau.

The citation is a provincial award presented once a year to members of the community who perform outstanding deeds in regard to lifesaving. It’s an honour. One that recognizes the courage and quick thinking in a moment of heightened stress.

But when you ask Duff, a volunteer firefighter with the Muskoka Lakes fire department, about the award, he’s quick to downplay the achievement. “It was humbling,” he says. “I mean, we were just doing what we’re supposed to do and what a lot of first responders do every day. But it was nice to be recognized.”

Duff’s fiancé, Lindy Gale; his coworker, Mike Gilligan; his neighbour, Justin Bifolchi; and his neighbour’s friend Matthew LeNormand, also received the Commissioner’s Citation for Lifesaving for their roles in the rescue effort.

The crash in question occurred around 7:30 p.m. on July 14, 2021, near Windermere Marina. Duff and Gale were relaxing at their property on Lake Rosseau just around the corner from the marina when Duff got a call from his fire station. There’d been a boating accident and possible drowning. The fire department needed emergency responders to help with the situation.

At that same moment, Duff’s neighbour, Bifolchi, was docking his motor boat with his friend LeNormand. Duff, who doesn’t own a motorized boat, explained to Bifolchi what had happened and asked if he could use his boat to respond to the call. The three men, plus Gale, who’s a registered practical nurse at Huntsville Hospital, hopped in the boat and headed towards the main staging area for the emergency services dealing with the accident. Along the way, they picked up Mike Gilligan, a fellow volunteer firefighter, to assist with the situation.

When they arrived at the main staging area, those coordinating the rescue told Duff to retrieve an out-of-control boat. Arriving at the scene of the accident, Duff says it was chaos.

“As we got close to the boat, it was spinning, and we could tell that there were people still on board, which nobody had thought was the case,” he says.

The boat was moving in erratic circles at high speeds, edging closer to shore. Part of the boat was crushed from where a second boat had collided and run over the top of it. Duff, who was driving Bifolchi’s boat, edged closer, while Gilligan stood near the bow with a long line of thick rope from the fire department. He threw the rope in front of the out-of-control boat, trying to get it to drive over the rope so that it would catch in the propeller, stopping the motor.

It took a few attempts, but eventually, Gilligan managed to halt the boat. Inside was a 13-year-old girl who later died of her injuries. The girl’s mother was airlifted to Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto with life-threatening injuries. And the son was retrieved from the water by bystanders.

The second boat in the accident also involved a mother and two children. This boat had capsized nearby, sending all three into the water. The two children suffered non-life-threatening injuries and were rescued by bystanders. Their mother, a 51-year-old from Oakville, went missing during the accident. Her body was found the next day by OPP divers.

“It was a chaotic moment. But we just did our best to make sure everyone was okay, and to do it the safest way possible,” Duff says. “But yeah, it ended up being a sad day for sure.”

John Brackett and Elle Hawtin were also awarded the Commissioner’s Citation for Lifesaving for their roles in the rescue effort. The full list of awardees can be found here.

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