Ballycastle tragedy: Woman's heroic efforts hailed as town stunned by death of swimmer Deirdre McShane
A woman has been hailed a heroine after she courageously waded into the sea to save the life of a swimmer and pulled the body of her drowned friend out of the freezing water.
Aine Paterson (44), a driving instructor, was walking a dog on the picturesque Ballycastle beach for a friend suffering from a sore back when the tragedy unfolded at around breakfast time on Monday.
The woman who died was mother-of-two Deirdre McShane, a midwife from Ballycastle, who is related to a number of Sinn Fein politicians in the area.
She and the survivor were part of a group of cold water swimmers who visit Ballycastle most mornings and were familiar sights to Mrs Paterson and other dog walkers on the beach.
Mrs Paterson, who is a part-time care worker, said the waves were so high in Ballycastle on Monday as she approached the beach she didn't think anyone would have gone for a swim.
She told the Belfast Telegraph that she initially thought what she saw in the sea was a bit of driftwood or a seal.
She added: "Then I saw movement and I realised it was a person who was in difficulties.
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"The adrenalin kicked in and I dropped the dog lead and ran into the sea after ringing 999.
"The woman was still just about conscious and I dragged her out of the water.
"She kept passing out, she was trying to talk but she couldn't because she had swallowed a lot of water.
"I now know she was trying to tell me the name of her friend and that she was still in the sea.
"I'd thought the woman I rescued was the only one in the water but then I saw a body being washed in.
"I knew the lady was dead but I also knew I had to get her out of the water before she was pulled back out by the current. The sea was so dangerous that I feared it could have taken me as well.
"The undercurrent was nearly pulling me off my feet.
"The conditions were absolutely horrendous.
"Growing up in Ballycastle, I know that bodies get lost.
"As I dragged the woman's body up the beach a man came out of nowhere and started CPR."
Mrs Paterson said that during his unsuccessful attempt to revive Ms McShane two other women ran across the beach.
"They were hysterical," she said.
"I think they were probably the ladies who decided to stay out of the sea because the conditions were so rough."
The emergency services, including members of the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service, the Northern Ireland Air Ambulance and local ambulance crews, were quickly on the scene of the tragedy.
Paramedics helped the survivor before taking her to the Causeway Hospital in Coleraine for treatment for hypothermia, where she was in a stable condition on Monday night.
Late on Monday afternoon Mrs Paterson, an occasional swimmer herself, said she was still in agony, adding: "I think I pulled every muscle imaginable.
"The woman whose dog I was walking collected me from the beach and ran me a hot bath and gave me warm drinks and chocolate cake. But I feel so sad for the families of the woman who died and the other lady who got into difficulties.
"I didn't know them but the whole town is in shock."
Mrs Paterson played down any suggestion that she was brave.
She added: "There was nobody else on the beach. What do you do? In my head I saw a swimmer fighting for her life so I dragged her out."
Emergency services officials, however, have praised Mrs Paterson for her calm response in the crisis.
Sinn Fein councillor and election candidate in North Antrim Cara McShane confirmed she was related to the dead woman and described her as a much-loved and likeable person who swam daily and wouldn't have taken unnecessary risks.
"From a family point of view we are shocked and devastated at this awful tragedy," she said.
"The wider community in Ballycastle is also in shock but I want to thank those who tried to help this morning and of course the emergency services for their efforts.
"I have no doubt the people of Ballycastle will rally round and offer support to help through the time ahead."
HM Coastguard said the freezing conditions in Ballycastle on Monday morning after an overnight storm were a factor in the tragedy.
Ciaran Kinney said even world champion swimmers would have found it find it difficult to cope in the plummeting temperatures.
He said the coastguard did not want to discourage cold water swimming groups right across Northern Ireland from their daily pastimes but he said they should always take care before entering the water.
Representatives of the ambulance and fire services said their officers were deeply saddened by Mrs McShane's death, particularly as they lived locally and knew the victims.
Ambulance spokesman Joe McGaughern said the incident was one of the worst tragedies he has had to face in his career.
PSNI inspector Mick Wood said: "Police received a report from the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service shortly after 8.30am for the concern for safety of two female swimmers at Ballycastle beach in the Cushendall Road area.
"Officers attended the scene along with other emergency services colleagues, including the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service, Air Ambulance NI and the Coastguard.
"Tragically, one of the women passed away at the scene.
"The second female has been taken to hospital where she remains undergoing treatment."