By Brian Fitzpatrick
For Regina, Sask., men Andy Hilderman, Mark Barnard, and Mike Landry, a quiet beer in a city tavern is a world removed from the chaotic scene where they first met Julie Slade.
It was July 23, 2007, when the men — all just 21 years old at the time — rescued the Milton, Ont., woman from her burning, overturned vehicle at the side of Highway 97 near Armstrong, B.C., and saved her life. In 2009, the three men received the Carnegie Medal for the dangerous rescue.
Recently at Leopold’s Tavern East, the three heroes — who firmly reject the term “hero” — caught up with Slade to mark the event’s 10-year anniversary, as Slade passed through Regina on her way to see family in Calgary, Alta.
“They’re part of my life,” Slade (formerly Julie Wharram) said as the group bantered back and forth while photos were taken. “We have that relationship … it just feels natural. This is like the third time I’ve seen Mark in my life, but it feels like the 500th time.”
Indeed it’s almost strange to see how comfortable the four are with each other, when they’ve seen each other just a few times since that fateful night. However, these friendships were not forged in any normal way. Slade, then 25, had lost control on Highway 97 and careened off the road at around 1:30 a.m., with her vehicle flipping and catching fire. “It’s burning, help me,” Hilderman recalled hearing her shouting at the time, as the three Reginans came upon the scene minutes after the crash.
“It was just pure luck, us being on the road,” Hilderman says. “Just absolute luck. We could see the light from the ditch. It wasn’t too far off the road, maybe 50 feet, but it was a steep embankment so it was just getting down to it that was (tough).”
Though on vacation in the region, Hilderman, Barnard and Landry weren’t even supposed to be in that area at all. Headed to a houseboat on Shuswap Lake, they had detoured to visit a friend in Kelowna, B.C. For Slade it was the luckiest detour of her life, as the three men saw her hand reaching through the billowing smoke and went to work without thinking.
With the fire rising, they struggled to get Slade out of her safety belt, using water from their cooler and even some Coke cans they had lying around to try to quell the flames, but to no avail. Eventually, a knife was secured from another driver who had stopped, and Slade was cut loose by Landry.
“We dragged her back — probably about 50 feet — and literally 30 seconds later, the car exploded,” Landry told the Regina Leader-Post at the time.
Slade’s passenger had earlier escaped with minor injuries but she herself didn’t; she was sent to intensive care in Vancouver, B.C., with first-, second- and third-degree burns to 20 percent of her body. Since she’s recovered, her bond with the three men has become extremely close, as they stay in regular contact via social media. Indeed, the three even attended her wedding in Toronto six years ago, as guests of honor.
“It was the best night of my life,” says Landry. “It’s the only time I think I’ll ever get a standing ovation. I’ll always remember that. Meeting her parents and her to-be husband was just amazing.”
Before this year, the group hadn’t met up for a few years, but Slade was clearly glad to be “just hanging out” with the locals. “It feels like we’ve known each other forever,” she said.
“We were just three guys that happened to do something that had to be done,” Hilderman said. “We didn’t go looking for it, it just happened to knock on our door. When the congratulations came in it was, ‘no, that’s not us. That’s not what we came here for.’”
But the adulation did come. For their roles in the exploding car scene they described as “just like in the movies,” they received awards in Saskatchewan and beyond.
In addition to the Carnegie Medal, the three were presented with a Canadian Medal of Bravery each in Ottawa, Ont., in 2010, and had previously received official provincial recognition from then-lieutenant-governor Gordon Barnhart. They were even featured in a bravery-themed piece in Reader’s Digest, with Lise Vincent, Slade’s mother, keeping a photo of the boys on her fridge.
Yet life moves on from even the most dramatic of events, and it now feels like a long time ago since Hilderman, Barnard and Landry were part of a group of 21 youngsters heading to enjoy a houseboat trip when they came upon the carnage. Andy is now a computer programmer at SaskTel; Mike is an electrician for Enbridge Pipelines; and Mark is an electrician for Bayer Crop Science. All three have taken lasting lessons from that night, however.
“I find myself always wondering, ‘What’s around the next corner,’” Barnard says. “I don’t travel anywhere without a knife in my vehicle anymore. It’s definitely shaped our lives. You feel yourself more prepared for something like that, just having been through it.”
“Every now and then, I have that medal hanging up in my living room and you see it and you remember,” Landry says. “It really makes me proud of these guys, and proud of everything that happened. But it makes me more proud to see Julie.”