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And then a hero came along...the dramatic sea rescue of three Northern Ireland children

 

Following Nathaniel Hunter's dramatic rescue of three children from the sea this week, Stephanie Bell and Kerry McKittrick speak to other lifesavers about what went through their minds when they decided to act... and how it has affected their lives since.

Co Antrim man Nathaniel Hunter was praised as a hero this week after he rescued three children who were swept out to sea off the north coast.

Nathaniel was walking with his wife at Ballycastle beach on Wednesday evening when he spotted two girls and a boy - aged 10, 11 and 12 - in difficulty.

Without any thought for his own safety, he dived in and pulled them out of the freezing water.

Here, three other rescuers describe their experiences and the impact they continue to have of them.

‘It had an impact on me, you realise how fragile life can be’

Engineering student Andrew Johnston (21), from Lurgan, saved a woman's life when he dived into the Swilly Burn River in Donegal and pulled her from an upturned car while on holiday last month. He says:

I was actually supposed to be somewhere else that week, but cancelled it at the last minute and booked a holiday with my girlfriend in Buncrana just the week before. Strangely, where it happened was called St Johnston, which is the same as my last name.

I think when something like that happens, it takes a while for it to sink in. It has been gradual, but I think it has changed me as it does put things in perspective.

Like Nathaniel Hunter in Ballycastle this week, it could have been anyone. If we had been a few minutes earlier, it could have been us in the river. It makes you realise how fragile life is.

It has had an impact on me. I always planned to travel some time during university and now that is a definite - I won't put it off. I plan to get it booked as soon as I can and go and see a bit of the world.

I had never been on that road in my life and for us to have been there at that exact time was crazy. The car was already in the water when we came along. I saw a crowd gathered at the side of the road and we slowed down and I put my window down.

A guy, who had a real look of shock on his face, asked me if I could swim. I think I was in the water within five seconds. I was just on autopilot. I didn't hesitate and I didn't even know what had happened or what to expect.

I got into the river and the car was completely submerged upside down to the wheels and there was a guy sitting on it, covered in blood. He was clearly in shock and, although I didn't know it at the time, his back was broken. He could hardly speak. He was just stunned.

I asked him if there was anyone else in the car and he said 'Yes', which was not the answer I wanted to hear. That's when the panic set it. I went down to the passenger door and there was no one there.

I came back up and the guy pointed to the back of the car and I went back down and, even though his back was broken, he helped me to pull her out.

It was tough keeping her afloat and the people who had gathered on the bank threw us a hose. It was a tricky situation getting her out, but we managed.

She didn't look too good and was unconscious and we worked with her, giving her CPR, with paramedics on the phone talking us through what to do.

To be honest my expectations weren’t great, because she had been under there a while and we couldn’t bring her round.

I actually don’t know how long the car had been in the water before we came along, but while I was there she was down quite a while.

It took the ambulance half an hour to get there. Lucky enough, I have since been told that both of them are now doing well and are out of hospital. I believe they are in their 60s and live in the Donegal area.

I’m just glad it turned out the way it did. I haven’t met the couple yet, but hopefully one day I will.

I don’t see what I did as anything special. The way I look at it is, if I hadn’t done it, things would have been much worse.

People can call me a hero, but I believe I only did what my friends, or anyone else I know, would have done, too.

I think if I hadn’t, then I would have felt bad the rest of my life.”

'I didn't think at all when I saw him ... I just jumped in'

Ian Paisley (50) is DUP MP for North Antrim. He is married to Fiona and they have four children. In 1998, he saved a boy from drowning off the Giant's Causeway. He says:

I saw the news report on Nathaniel Hunter a few nights ago and I saw that the coastguard called Nathan a hero because of his quick thinking. It took me back to that day in 1998.

I remember it was a nice holiday afternoon. I was with my wife, Fiona, and our daughters and my wife's family for a day out at the Giant's Causeway.

I remember seeing a man walking out to the end of the Causeway and he was holding two boys by their hands.

All of a sudden, a big wave came in and swept them off the Causeway.

Straight away, the man - who I later found out was the boys' uncle - was thrown back in against the rocks.

He was swept out and swept in again, but the boys were still in the water.

There was a lot of screaming and shouting, so I went down to the rocks and saw one of the little boys in the water.

I didn't think when I saw him; I just jumped in with another Spanish fellow who was there.

We got the little boy out of the water, but we couldn't find his brother.

It wasn't until later on that day that the helicopter came and found his body.

I know exactly how Nathaniel felt when he saved those children from the sea. You don't think about consequences, you just do what has to be done.

It think it's both brave and foolhardy at the same time. I didn't think at all; I just jumped in. I didn't even take off my Barbour jacket or boots.

If I had have thought about it, I don't think I would have done it. It was just an instinct.

I am a good swimmer. I was taught to swim in the sea by my dad and I'm the captain of the House of Commons swimming team.

It was a risk for me to do it, though. I could easily not have come out of the water and left my children without a father.

I ran into the young fellow I saved in town years later and got to meet his family too.

It was lovely to meet him, but, at the same time, there is always the fact that I couldn't save his brother.

I was so disappointed not to be able to find him.

"The whole time we were looking, we just knew that a life had been lost.

The sense of loss has always been a great one for me."

'There's great satisfaction that the strain on families is lifted'

Alistair Warke (51) is a full-time volunteer for the Community Rescue Service and lives in Coleraine. He says:

I've been volunteering for over 18 months now - I've always had a concern for my fellow human beings.

I came across the Community Rescue Service (CRS) a few years ago and I wanted to give something back. It appealed to me because it is a very practical way of contributing to society.

This is something I have a great passion for - being able to do something practical for someone in need.

When I think of what Nathaniel Hunter did when rescuing those children in Ballycastle, I wonder: what would I do if faced with the same situation?

Thanks to my training with the CRS, I'm able to assess a situation.

Our training tells us that the most important person on a search is me - if I don't know how to look after myself, then I become the second casualty.

Then my team not only loses a member, but also has to deal with me as a casualty.

But when faced with the situation that Nathaniel was as an ordinary member of the public you do what has to be done. I think it's human nature.

We're a lowland rescue service - we're not a specialist team for mountain or sea rescue. There is, of course, training given to everyone who joins the team.

We spend a lot of time as a team searching, yet coming up with nothing.

That can either be because we don't find anything or it because another team finds the person we're looking for.

Each team is made up of three people - a team leader, a person looking after communications and another in charge of first aid.

Each of us can take up any one of those positions, but for each particular search we're allocated a set role.

Recently, we were called out to find an elderly person suffering from dementia. They had gone out for a short walk and didn't return.

We were called out from Coleraine at about 7.30am.

We arrived at the scene and conducted what is called a 'hasty search'. We cover as much ground as quickly as we can in case the person is still there.

After four hours, we reassessed the situation and were directed to return to one particular area where it was believed the person was likely to be.

We were going through wooded areas and farmland. It was a bright day, but it had rained heavily the night before.

There was concern because the missing person had not been dressed adequately for the weather.

It is a worry when you're doing a search like that; the longer the search goes on, the less likely there is to be a positive outcome.

We were searching the boundaries of fields in the hope that the person might have sought shelter there.

At the bottom of the field, there was a large mound of earth and, as I rounded that mound, the person was there in front of me - still alive.

Your first reaction is one of disbelief. The person that has been in your head for hours is, all of a sudden, there in front of you.

Then there's a slight panic: what should you do next? The training then kicks in and you go into action.

I was the communications person for that particular team, so my colleague began to administer first aid while we put the wheels into motion to recover the missing person and get them proper medical attention.

This was very much a case of a life that would have been lost if we hadn't found the person. The weather took a turn for the worse, with torrential rain for a full half-hour after that.

I'm not a medical professional, but a frail individual, dressed as they were, wouldn't have survived much longer.

We work very much as part of a team. Sometimes, we don't find what we're looking for and sometimes we find people who have not survived.

In this particular instance, there was a huge sense of relief that we hadn't searched for hours for no reason.

There's a great satisfaction that the person is now safe and the strain that has been with the family for so long has now been lifted."

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