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Bangor swimmer John Hunter who risked life to rescue 152 refugees honoured

Selfless John earns award after saving baby and stopping boat from capsizing

By Claire McNeilly

Published 04/10/2016

John at work
John at work
John Hunter and Megan Walker

If you want to know what the word bravery really means, ask some of the many people who are alive today because of John Hunter.

He is the Northern Irish rescue swimmer who has been honoured for his outstanding selflessness after saving the lives of 152 refugees - including a baby - just off the Greek islands earlier this year.

The Bangor native caught a screaming infant just before the child fell to almost certain death between two boats, after the mother was knocked off balance by a violent wave in atrocious sea conditions.

The 30-year-old sports development coach also cast aside his own safety when, during the night, he fearlessly jumped on to a vessel carrying 23 refugees which was at serious risk of capsizing, plucking them to safety.

And there are many others who owe their lives to the efforts of the Lagan Search and Rescue Swimmer Corps volunteer in February, but those two episodes earned him an individual Commendation at today's Shipwrecked Mariners' Society Skill and Gallantry Awards.

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph in advance of the ceremony in London, John said his 10-day deployment in the eastern Aegean was an experience that changed him forever.

"I had that little baby in my hands for about 30 seconds... not even long enough to determine if it was a boy or a girl," said John, who attended the 177-year-old society's glittering gala with his partner Megan Walker, a nurse in her 20s.

"The little thing had been wrapped up in a bundle and literally thrown to me. I caught it, turned round and handed it to the doctor. It was just something I did instinctively at the time."

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But afterwards, the enormity of saving a young life hit him.

"It's quite a scary moment when you think about what was in your hands and what could have happened if I'd mistimed the catch... I saw the mother and baby again from a distance, but in those conditions you don't get personal time with the people you've rescued, because the doctors are checking them." He added: "With the boat that was in danger of capsizing, it was a case of jumping and landing on it so that the other members of my crew could throw me lines that I could use to tie the vessel up against our boat.

"We had to offload all 23 people as quickly as possible. That vessel was really just a hollowed out bit of plastic - and that's what a lot of the refugees were using." Like millions of people around the world, John was touched by last year's heartbreaking pictures of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian boy who drowned while attempting to flee war-torn Syria and was found washed up on a Turkish beach.

Only a tiny minority, however, decided to do something about it.

"I felt I had the skill set to help; I felt obliged," he said. "It was one of the most exhausting, yet exhilarating things I've ever done. It was humbling to help and make a small difference."

He said the people he saved expressed their gratitude "in various ways".

"Some were just in shock. Others were very emotional and hugged me. One Syrian girl played a song from her home town on a banjo - that was the only thing she brought with her."

Belfast Telegraph

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