11/20/2014 12:14 EST | Updated 01/20/2015 05:59 EST

Teen who was assaulted, left for dead by Winnipeg river meets rescuer

WINNIPEG - A 16-year-old Manitoba teen who was viciously beaten, assaulted and left to die beside a river has met one of the men who rescued her and thanked him.

Rinelle Harper gave Sean Vincent a soapstone sculpture of a polar bear and a painting from her First Nation at a downtown Winnipeg hotel on Thursday. Rinelle, who didn't speak at the meeting and appeared embarrassed at all the attention, looked down and fiddled with her hair.

She asked through her family that the numerous media cameras present not show her face, still swollen and bruised from the attack. As she tinkered with the tablecloth with a bandaged finger, her family hugged Vincent and thanked him for being there when Rinelle needed him most.

"The family want to express their appreciation and their thank you to Sean for giving support to Rinelle in her time of need," said Fred Harper, Rinelle's grandfather. "She was left for dead ... but she was saved, so she's here with us. Her fast recovery is a miracle from above."

The girl's meeting with Vincent was the first time she had ventured out of the hotel room where she's been staying with her family since being discharged from hospital a week ago.

Vincent and another construction worker found a battered and bruised Rinelle under a downtown bridge near the Assiniboine River on the morning of Nov. 8. They covered her with their coats, called 911 and waited with her until paramedics arrived.

Vincent, who has two girls around Rinelle's age, said he was excited to meet the teen. The last time he saw her, she was "fighting for air" under a downtown bridge.

"She shouldn't have to live through that. No one should have to see that. It was a bad scene all around," Vincent said. "At the end of the day, she's the hero. We were just people going to work on a Saturday. We were at the right place at the right time."

Police have said Rinelle was out with friends celebrating the completion of her midterms the night of Nov. 7. The teen from the northern reserve of Garden Hill was studying at a boarding school for aboriginal students in Winnipeg.

She got separated from her friends and struck up a conversation with two males. The three walked to the Assiniboine River where police say Rinelle was attacked and ended up in the frigid water. She managed to crawl out upstream, but was attacked again and "left for dead," police said.

Police alleged the same pair beat and sexually assaulted another woman a short time later.

A 17-year-old, who cannot be named, and 20-year-old Justin James Hudson are facing numerous charges in the two assaults, including attempted murder and aggravated sexual assault. Both are to appear in court next week.

A passerby noticed Rinelle early the next morning and told Vincent and fellow construction worker Ed Mehanovic. When they first saw her, surrounded in blood and gravel, they didn't know if the teen was alive or dead, Vincent said. She was taken to hospital in critical condition.

The vicious assault, coming so soon after the body of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine was found in the Red River, has prompted aboriginal leaders to call yet again for an end to violence against women.

There are plans for Rinelle to address the meeting of the Assembly of First Nations in Winnipeg next month when the group elects a new leader and discusses plans for a roundtable on missing and murdered aboriginal women.

Grand Chief David Harper, who represents northern Manitoba First Nations and is a relative of Rinelle's, said she still doesn't remember what happened that night and gets tired very easily. But it was important to the teen and her family to meet the men who found her, he said.

"To be able to say thank you for being there at that time. Another few more minutes, it could have been a totally different story."