After Davitt Walsh risked all to save baby Rioghnach-Ann, we meet three men who put their lives in peril to rescue others
A moment of courage can help to avoid tragedy, reveals Kerry McKittrick
When a car containing six members of a Londonderry family slid off Buncrana pier into the waters of Lough Swilly on Sunday, March 20, former footballer Davitt Walsh did not hesitate. He stripped off and dived into the chilly sea in a selfless act of heroism.
Davitt, who had been at the pier by chance, was able to rescue baby Rioghnach-Ann from the car, but her father Sean McGrotty, brothers Evan and Mark, grandmother Ruth Daniels and her teenage aunt Jodi-Lee perished.
During emotional scenes at the funeral mass for the five, the baby's mother Louise, paid special tribute to Davitt. But he had earlier told her he regretted being unable to save any of the others.
Davitt's heroism has been widely, and rightly, lauded.
If he had not acted so quickly, Louise would have lost her entire family. And it left many people wondering if they would have taken the same risks to save someone in peril.
Common sense tells us that we should call the emergency services who are trained to deal with such situations in order to avoid the rescuer also becoming a victim. But sometimes, in a desperate situation, the quick-thinking of members of the public and passers-by has saved lives.
Kerry McKittrick talks to some rescuers about how they have saved lives by their selfless actions and how sometimes even the most valiant attempts can end in tragedy.
‘One boy was drowning, so I jumped in and grabbed him and got him back to the rocks’
Ian Paisley is the DUP MP for North Antrim. He is married to Fiona and they have four children. He says:
I can remember that it was August 14, 1998. I was at the Giant's Causeway with my wife and kids on our summer holidays. It was one of those days where the sun was shining but there were very strong waves which kept crashing over the headland.
People kept going down onto the rocks to get covered by the sea spray. Of course the rocks become very slippery when they're wet. When it's warm the whole scene looks very inviting, but once a wave hits the rocks it can carry you out to sea.
I saw a man head down to the edge with his two young nephews and a wave caught them and took them straight out to the sea. Lots of people were watching, so they started panicking and screaming. I ran down with a couple of Spanish guys who were there at the same time. Another wave grabbed the uncle and tossed him back on the rocks so he was okay but the two boys were being swept away. One of them was clearly drowning. I jumped in and grabbed the boy and got him back to the rocks with the help of one of the Spanish guys.
The other boy couldn't be found. A helicopter and a search and rescue team had been alerted
In January 1999, the Royal Humane Society gave me an award for bravery for rescuing the boy. I've met him since.
This strapping, six foot fellow came up to me in town and asked if I knew who he was and told me that I had pulled him out of the water. It was such a bitter sweet moment - I feel that I did nothing because his brother died.
My daughters and wife were screaming at me not to do it but I just jumped into the water.
I have kids, so when there was a child in trouble it was a natural reaction for me.
If I had taken a moment to think about it, I wouldn't have gone in, I would have said 'let's call someone'. I was wearing a Barbour jacket and a pair of jeans and jumped into the water with all those clothes on.
My clothes were ruined. It was only afterwards that I realised it was a stupid thing to have done.
I know I saved that young fellow's life, but a mother still lost her child.
What would it have been like if it had been a double tragedy?
That's the only thing that gives me some sense of achievement. I'm always haunted by that loss and it really makes me emotional talking about it even now. It's brilliant that Davitt Walsh saved that little baby's life and he did what anyone would have done - he just went for it.
He'll have comfort in knowing that at the very least he tried but in the back of his mind there will always be the thought that there was still a huge loss. I totally sympathise with him for that."
'We were looking for a missing person when Heidi just took off and led us straight to him'
Davey Carlile (37) works as a kitchen fitter. He lives in Ballyhalbert with his wife Jaimie and their sons Ethan and Luke. He also handles search dog Heidi. He says:
I’ve always had dogs, especially springer spaniels, and I’ve always been into walking and hiking through the mountains.
At once stage I even considered joining the Mourne Search and Rescue team.
Then one day, I read an article about SARDA — the Search And Rescue Dog Association. I did a bit of research and discovered the contact details for Neil Powell.
Neil is a dog training specialist, who has trained search and rescue dogs here for more than 30 years.
I met Neil and discussed his work and what was involved.
I then decided to train a dog to become a search and rescue dog.
For something like this you need a dog that is a little bonkers and just wants to play all the time and I found that in Heidi — she’s a springer spaniel and they’re like that naturally.
Heidi and I both trained through SARDA.
There’s an official training day once a month where they give you a programme of tasks to train on for the next month.
It takes two years before you and the dog are qualified for search and rescue.
As well as training, you need to undergo an assessment for a weekend which consists of three different searches.
That qualifies you as a novice search handler and means you can be on the call-out list if someone goes missing and a search is organised. You then spend another couple of years training to become a fully-qualified search handler, and Heidi and I qualified last year.
Heidi is specifically trained to find scent in the air, so she works best in rural areas such as mountains and parks.
She also works best in the middle of the night when there might only be one or two people around.
She wouldn’t be any use in the middle of the city, because there are too many people around. For that you need a trailing dog — one that follows the scent on the ground — and we often work closely with other handlers and other dogs.
Most of our calls are at night and I could easily be out all night before I have to go off to work.
We work with all sorts of different organisations — I might be with other rescue associations, the police, fire brigade or even just by myself.
I’ve found lots of different kinds of people.
Quite often we find ourselves searching for people who are at risk to themselves or people who might have wondered off from care homes.
Last year, we were called out to find a guy who had gone missing in a rural area — the last person he had talked to was a taxi driver. On that occasion, we worked with Neil Powell and his bloodhound Paddy who is a trailing dog.
Paddy was able to follow the trail to the edge of a cliff and then I brought Heidi underneath the cliff and she was able to find him.
We had another call out in a rural park — as soon as she was ready, Heidi just disappeared off into the tree line and it was a good 10 minutes before she came back. She indicated to me that she had found the guy we were looking for and took us straight to him — he was sitting in a clearing.
Again this was a person considered at risk to himself, so we were able to coax him out and he was taken away to be cared for.
Sometimes this work can be quite stressful and other times it can be the best thing in the world.
I joined expecting to be running about the mountains looking for young ones lost on their Duke of Edinburgh Award projects, but it’s not like that at all.
Neil has a dog which is trained to find drowned persons and that can be very distressing work.
Yet when you find the person you’re looking for, it means the family can have closure and not left wondering where that person’s body is lying.
Every dog is different, but I think Heidi will keep going until she’s 10 or 11.
Her work is very physical and she can be searching for five or six hours at a time. She really loves what she does.
When we go out I need to put a fluorescent jacket on her to indicate that she’s a search dog. As soon as she sees it coming out of my rucksack, she goes bonkers for it.
When I put it on her she zooms off and I won’t see her again for maybe 10 minutes.”
‘I would do the exact same again tomorrow... I just couldn’t stand by and watch someone struggle’
Kieran Meade (45) works as an emergency medical technician (EMT) for the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service. He lives in Banbridge with his wife Gillian and they have two daughters, Lauren (17) and Caitlin (14). He says:
I was working as an EMT during the very cold winter of 2010, when we got a call that a man was in the water at Lurgan Lake.
I don’t know how he got there, but when we arrived he was struggling to keep himself above the water and above the ice on the lake.
There was a fire crew there and we all knew we had to get the man out of the water as quickly as possible — if he didn’t drown then he would freeze to death.
We found a small boat nearby and the fire crew had life jackets with them, so me and two of the fire fighters put on jackets and got into the boat with pickaxes — in some places the ice was five inches thick.
We started breaking our way through the ice to get to the man and we got to within 20-30 yards of him when a police helicopter arrived.
They lowered a winch to try and lift the man out but from what I could see at that point he was so cold he couldn’t hold on to it.
He had no strength or energy left.
The helicopter moved away from him and towards us, but the down draft caused the boat we were in to capsize. The two firemen decided to swim back towards the shore, but I managed to clamber onto the over-turned boat and started paddling towards the man again.
He was on the ice at this stage, but was unconscious.
Then another boat was launched — it was the Fire Brigade’s water rescue unit.
Those boats are made for two, so when I got in we were too heavy and the fire fighters decided to take me back to shore.
They then went out again to rescue the man.
When I got back to shore I got into the ambulance.
My blood pressure was very low. They got me out of my wet clothes and wrapped me in blankets and tinfoil.
I was taken to hospital to get warmed up and then I discharged myself and went home.
I did take a risk but I was wearing a life jacket and I knew there were fire crew members nearby.
There’s only so much that you can learn in training school. I’ve worked as a fire fighter and now I work as an EMT and sometimes you have to think outside of the box.
Unfortunately the man didn’t survive his ordeal, but I would do the same thing again tomorrow — I just couldn’t stand by and watch someone struggle.”