Boy who watched friend drown warns against the dangers of St. Lawrence River
It was because of a dare.
Jacob Paquette's friend Eugène threw out the challenge: swim to the blue boat and back. It didn't seem far.
Monday was a hot day, and Jacob, who is 10, Eugène and two other boys had been fishing for most of the morning from a small dock anchored on the St. Lawrence River, a stone's throw from St-Jean-Baptiste Boulevard in Montreal's Pointe-aux-Trembles neighbourhood.
As the temperature spiked, the kids started doing cannonballs off the dock, then they took turns trying to swim out to a small vessel moored to a nearby pier.
17-year-old Angel was the oldest, but Jacob says he wasn't the strongest swimmer of the bunch.
"I told him, 'Don't go! There's a chance you'll drown,'" Jacob recalled.
But Angel went anyway and got into trouble about seven metres from the rusty barge.
Jacob says his friend Jérémie, 11, swam out to try and save the flailing teen but got pulled down himself when Angel, panicking, grabbed onto him for dear life.
Then Eugène, who is 14, dove in and managed to pull Jérémie away to safety.
But they couldn't save Angel.
Jacob watched helplessly from the dock as his fishing buddy drowned.
"He said, 'Help me, I'm dying,'" said Jacob. "But we couldn't."
2019 has been an especially deadly year on Quebec waters. According to the Quebec Lifesaving Society, so far this year, 35 people have drowned in the province's lakes, rivers, pools and in other waterways — up from 30 the same time last year.
Jacob says by the time first responders found Angel's body and pulled it from the river with a hook, he knew his friend would be one of those victims.
"I was sure he was dead," Jacob said. "They couldn't bring him back. He was under the water for too long."
Swimming not allowed, but no signage or barrier
Neighbours say the dock, which is attached to the shore next to a sprawling park in Montreal's east end, is a popular spot for fishing and for teens to hang out.
Empty cans, plastic cups and beer caps can be found along the rugged shoreline.
Not far out, massive cargo ships drift by, evidence of the river's depth and strong current.
The borough says technically no swimming is allowed at the spot, nor anywhere along its 24 kilometres of unsupervised shoreline, but there are no signs warning against it.
Frédéric Desautels says he goes down to the dock nearly every day to fish, often with his partner, Nancy Caron.
Caron was there Monday when firefighters found Angel in the river and tried in vain to resuscitate him.
That evening they tied a bouquet of plastic flowers to a nearby tree as a kind of makeshift memorial to the teen.
Desautels says there used to be a metal barrier about a metre high all the way around the dock, but the section on the river side was removed in June 2018 to make way for a new water taxi service connecting the borough and Montreal's Old Port.
The boats no longer dock there, and Desautels thinks the fence should be put back up.
"There's no security here for all the kids who come here often," he said. "There are kids who come without their parents."
Don't be tempted by the river, says Jacob
Jacob's mother, Marlène Bourdon-Lachance, says she would have never let her son come there, had she known.
She says Jacob only started fishing this year, and it was on the condition he stay near his home in Montréal Est, in areas with a gently sloping shoreline and proper supervision.
"He could have died that day — from going fishing," she said.
That shock is mixed with a mother's pride that he kept a cool head in a crisis and didn't jump in to try to save his friends.
"We talk about drowning," Bourdon-Lachance said. "If someone is drowning, they can become strong, and they can take you with them."
Jacob says it wasn't easy to hold back as his friend struggled for his life.
"I couldn't help him," he said. "I had nothing to throw to him."
But even though he thinks the boys would have never jumped in the water had the dock been fenced off, he's against putting the barrier back.
"It would stop people from fishing or skipping stones," he said.
Instead, he'd rather see lifeguards or some other supervisors on duty.
The soon-to-be grade 5 student also says he'll keep swimming — but never again where the drowning happened.
He has a message for other kids who might be tempted by the cool, blue waters of the St. Lawrence River on a hot summer day.
"Don't go," he said. "There are currents we can't even see, just under the water, that could sweep you away."