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Toronto Just inches of air left for two men rescued from flooded elevator

The flooded basement of a building where two people were trapped in an elevator during a heavy rainstorm in Toronto on Wednesday, August 8, 2018.

Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press

Standing at the top of the cement stairwell on Tuesday night, the police officers quickly realized how fast the water was rising; only a couple of inches of a green door frame remained visible in the basement above the murky brown water.

Constable Ryan Barnett and Constable Josh McSweeney had little time to get through that door to the two men trapped in the elevator on the other side, with the floodwaters rushing in and only a few inches of air left.

The first challenge: The door was locked. Wading through the water, Constable Barnett felt around under the water with the key until it slid into the lock.

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Related: Flash floods reignite debate over Toronto’s sewer system

Using the entire weight of his six-foot-plus frame, he pushed the door open against the water behind it. Inside the small room, he and Constable Barnett could see the top sliver of the elevator door over the water.

The shouts of the two men trapped inside were loud and clear.

“We’re the police, we’re here to help you,” the officers yelled back. But neither had ever had to break open an elevator door before. They were not even sure which way it opened.

The operation was one of a rash of rescue efforts in Toronto after a torrential two-hour downpour stranded drivers and flooded homes and buildings. Captain Michael Westwood of Toronto Fire Services said firefighters responded to 638 calls on Tuesday – about 98 per cent more than usual. From midnight to 8 a.m. on Wednesday, call volumes soared to 137 per cent above average. Although the rain barely registered on the outskirts of the city, about 72 millimetres fell on some regions in about two hours, warning-preparedness meteorologist Geoff Coulson said.

The rain caused the sudden flooding at 501 Alliance Ave., in the city’s west end, that trapped the two men in the elevator.

As they awaited rescue, Klever Freire, 34, and Gabriel Otrin, 27, teetered on the railings, shouting for help as they struggled to keep their heads above the rising water.

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They had been working late in their office on the fourth floor. Their company, DreamQii Inc., develops drones. Mr. Freire is CEO and Mr. Otrin is a lead industrial designer.

Sometime before 10:30 p.m., a custodian suggested they move their cars out of the underground parking lot, because it was starting to flood. So the two of them headed down to the basement.

When the elevator reached the bottom floor, water started to gush in from underneath. The doors would not open. The pair tried to call for help on the emergency phone, but the speakers were soon submerged and the electronic panel was destroyed.

They panicked when the water started to rise above their waists. They banged on the walls and bloodied their fists trying to punch through a small panel in the ceiling, hoping to get a cellular signal to call 911. Eventually, Mr. Otrin burst through with his head.

Constable Barnett and Constable McSweeney, who had been working together for about a week, got the call at 10:52 p.m.

The rain was torrential, and emergency crews were tied up across the city. The call was not even in their division, but Constable Barnett had a feeling they might get there fastest.

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It took six minutes.

In the lobby, maintenance workers had pried open the main floor elevator doors with a crowbar after they heard the screams from the shaft below. The officers rushed to the basement.

Inside the elevator, Mr. Freire thought about his daughter. He had cancelled a movie outing with her for that evening because he had too much work to do. He realized he might pay for that decision with his life.

Mr. Otrin said he focused on his faith.

On the other side of the metal door, Constable McSweeney waded toward the stairwell with the crowbar he borrowed from the maintenance workers. The water was so deep he could no longer touch bottom. Treading water, he leaned into the crowbar until the door finally slid open.

As the water gushed in from the basement, filling the last bit of the elevator, the officers grabbed the two men and hauled them to the stairwell.

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Klever Freire, right, and Gabriel Otrin pose for a photograph in the building where they were trapped in an elevator during a heavy rainstorm.

Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press

Back on solid ground, Mr. Freire enveloped the officers in a bear hug.

“I was just so grateful I was going to be able to see my family again,” he said.

On Wednesday, all four men went back to work.

Mr. Freire just wanted to distract himself, to be normal. His car was still submerged in the basement of the building – but he said it is the last thing on his mind now.

Constable Barnett and Constable McSweeney were praised as heroes at a press conference at the divisional headquarters.

“That’s just what we do,” they told reporters with a shrug – recalling the story that they are all going to be asked to tell for the rest of their lives. And they headed back out on the road.

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With a report from The Canadian Press

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article included an incorrect spelling of Constable John McSweeney’s surname. This version has been corrected.
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