BettyLou Kopeski believes she wouldn’t be alive if three young strangers hadn’t pulled her and her partner Hughie Olson to safety on a Chilcotin back road.
Kingsley Cheung, 18, Justin Ilnicki, 21 and Kevin Leski, 29 were just heading back to Williams Lake after an early morning hunting trip, Oct. 13, 2007 when they were confronted with an horrific scene near Raven Lake in the Chilcotin.
A head-on collision of a small car and pickup created a fiery inferno leaving the five occupants of the car dead and the two in the truck at imminent risk of perishing.
The three young men instantly stopped and raced to the truck pulling the driver through the shattered windshield to safety on the side of the road.
The passenger was wedged under the dash surrounded by fire.
Heroic efforts on the part of the men extracted her from the burning vehicle.
The couple had been fishing in Bella Coola and were on their way home for BettyLou’s aunt’s 85th birthday the next day.
With Olson out of danger on the side of the road urging the boys to rescue his wife, BettyLou, although unconscious and surrounded by fire, says her life will never be the same because of those precious few moments when three strangers, using a mattress from the truck’s camper shielded themselves as best they could and became her heroes.
“Prior to the three boys stopping at the scene, a pickup truck with three people stopped but didn’t offer assistance and left as soon as the boys stopped,” she said.
“These boys didn’t hesitate, they’re true heroes.”
Kingsley, in his police statement said he couldn’t believe there were other people who stopped and didn’t help get Hughie and BettyLou out.
Airlifted to Vancouver, the couple struggled to survive. BettyLou remained unconscious, suffering multiple injuries and burns, Hughie had a split pelvis, as well as other injuries and a severe leg burn.
“My first memories are about six weeks after the collision in the burn unit at Vancouver General Hospital,” she said.
“Hughie visited every day until he was transferred first to UBC’s intermediate care, then to G.F. Strong Rehabilitation Centre.”
With no memory of the accident, BettyLou was told about her heroes.
“With no memory of the accident, I didn’t recognize the miracle of my survival and the role those three men played,” she said.
“Once I was fully alert, the enormity and the details saddened me.”
Five young people died in the car and the couple’s two family dogs also died. Compounded by their own pain and suffering, it was too much for BettyLou.
With many hugs and thank yous, Hughie met the three men at a B.C. Ambulance metal presentation in January 2008 in Williams Lake where he continued to recover.
It wasn’t until nearly the anniversary of the collision that BettyLou met her heroes.
When a friend mentioned the Governor General’s Medal of Bravery, BettyLou knew what to do for her heroes.
“I’m so proud of them, they risked their lives to save us and they’re part of our family now,” she said.
“We want to stay connected, there’s nothing we wouldn’t do for them.”
Hughie and BettyLou were at Rideau Hall, the Governor General’s residence in Ottawa, to witness the three young men receiving their medals.
The men don’t think of themselves as heroes. As Kevin said to BettyLou, “anyone would have done the same.”
BettyLou knows differently.