7 December 2014
'Don't let him go!'
It was a bright, breezy day as Lee Jackson walked his dogs along the steep winding bank that leads down to Staithes Harbour.
It was the height of Summer and there were lots of people around. But one person in particular caught his eye.
A man was frantically running back and forth between the lifeboat station and the lifeboat shop.
It was a common sight in the close-knit community. And not just for emergencies at sea.
So instead of heading for home, Lee caught up with the man and said: ‘Do you need some help? I’m one of the lifeboat crew.’
‘I’ve been sent to get help,’ the man replied, breathlessly. ‘Two people have been washed off the pier.’
A relaxing holiday by the sea
Louisa Barrow (44) and Peter Severs (49) were among the throng of people in the picturesque fishing village of Staithes that day.
The couple were camping at nearby Robin Hood’s Bay and enjoying the first day of their seaside holiday in North Yorkshire.
As they made their way to Staithes’ North Pier, Peter couldn’t resist taking a look around the lifeboat station to admire its B class inshore lifeboat, Pride of Leicester.
He didn’t think that, half an hour later, he’d be inside it.
Unusually large swells
Earlier that morning, Crew Member Richard Pennell, who was also on holiday, sat watching the sea as he enjoyed a coffee outside the Cod and Lobster.
The pub overlooks Staithes Harbour and its North and South Piers, two concrete breakwaters bordered by huge boulders on their seaward sides, protecting the harbour from the treacherous North Sea.
With high tide still a few hours away, Richard noted the considerable swell and the breakers rolling in through the harbour entrance.
So when his pager went off at home a couple of hours later, he just knew something serious had happened.
‘It hit us like a train’
There were lots of people milling about on the pier that day and, led by curiosity, Louisa and Peter walked right to the very end and stood watching the waves.
As they joked about the size of an approaching wave, it crashed into the harbour wall and spilled onto the pier, splashing the bottom of their jeans.
It took them by surprise because there’d been no sign of waves coming over onto the pier. But they laughed it off and decided to head back to shore, just as another wave rolled toward them.
Thinking it might splash them again, they deliberately turned their backs to it and then – bam!
‘It hit us like a train’, Peter recalls. ‘And that’s the one that knocked both of us into the water. I cut my head open. I’m not sure if that was on the rocks or the actual walkway. But I remember it hitting me and I was in the water and it all went black, I couldn’t see anything. And I thought: “This isn’t good.” And I remember feeling for the walkway with my feet and thinking: “Oh no, what’s happened here?”
‘And then I came up by the pier ladder and saw Louisa waving her arms. She was screaming: “Don’t let me drown, don’t let me drown.” And I was shouting: “Just swim, Louisa, swim.”’
‘Well I knew I had to keep afloat,’ Louisa adds. ‘Because I knew he would come after me. He would not have let anything happen to me. And I knew he was safe because he was at that wall. He was at that ladder. And determination kicks in.
‘Survival, and the thought of not seeing the kids again and not seeing Peter again, kept me going. And the thought that if I gave up, he would lose his life too. So I knew that I had to fight to get to that pier. But for every pace forward, the waves just kept pulling me back.’
A mystery hero
Miraculously, no-one else on the pier was washed off in to the sea.
When he realised what had happened, a local man untangled some boat mooring rope that was lying on the pier. He tied a perfect bowline knot at the end of it and threw it with such precision, Louisa caught it first time.
She put it round her wrist and the man dragged her to where Peter was at the pier ladder. He threw another two ropes down to the couple – one to put around Peter and one to put around Louisa.
He tied Peter’s rope to the safety rail and then hauled Louisa up the ladder as Peter pushed her up as best he could from below.
‘I remember screaming: “Don’t let him go, don’t let him go!”’ Louisa recalls. ‘And the guy said: “He’s not going anywhere, I’m tying him up.”’
More serious than first thought
When RNLI Deputy Launching Authority Sean Baxter got the call he raced to the scene and arrived just as Louisa was being pulled from the water.
He initially thought there were no more casualties, until he saw Peter desperately clinging onto the ladder as he was pummelled against the harbour wall by the relentless swell.
‘The situation was much more serious than we first thought,’ Sean says. ‘I was on top of the pier and waves were washing over, hitting me shoulder-high.
‘Peter was over 1m below me on the fourth rung of the ladder, which means he must’ve been 3m underwater at times.’ Our video shows swell at the ladder in much calmer conditions.
Sean knew he had to get Peter out fast and encouraged him to climb up the ladder, only to discover that Peter couldn’t move his right leg.
Knowing a rescue from shore would now be impossible, Sean sprang into action.
‘At the end of the day, we’re just normal members of the public trained to make life-and-death decisions,’ Sean says.
‘Once I’d assessed Peter’s condition, it was a case of doing the logistics: launching the lifeboat; radioing the crew; working out how to get Peter in the boat; keeping the Coastguard informed; evacuating the pier; caring for the casualties.'
One false move and Peter would be crushed
Back at the station, the crew were ready to launch.
After calling 999 for the Coastguard, Helmsman Lee had changed into his kit and waited for the rest of the crew to arrive while Sean assessed the situation.
‘We got three quarters down the slipway in the trailer. And once we got to the water, it was obvious with the swell that it was going to be tricky,’ Lee explains.
‘Looking at the sea coming into the harbour, I made two approaches just to get a feel of it and see what we could do.
‘We knew using the boat wasn’t going to be the most comfortable way to get Peter out. But with the sea conditions and looking at where he was, it was really the only way. He was never going to last much longer holding on.’
Peter was in a precarious position at the pier. The ladder he was holding onto was in a corner, so Lee couldn’t just drive in and drive out. It took all of Lee’s skill and might to manoeuvre the lifeboat at the right angle in the swell so close to Peter and the pier. One false move and Peter would be crushed.
But that wasn’t the only risk. Crew Member Richard was ready to catch Peter’s rope from Sean as Crew Member Stephen Iredale prepared to grab hold of Peter. If Richard failed to catch the rope and Stephen failed to get Peter onboard, Peter would be free and at the mercy of the sea.
‘On the third attempt I waited for the sea to go flat and went in,’ Lee says. ‘I said to the two crew: “When I get in, it’s just a matter of grabbing Peter and pulling him into the boat and then I’ll get away as quick as I can.”
‘We’d just got to the ladder in a good position when a wave came round the corner of the pier and lifted us up.’
‘The bow was at 45 degrees,’ Sean continues. ‘The two crew members were in the bow of the boat helping to keep her ballasted. I threw the rope.’
‘The tail end folded over the sponson,’ Richard went on. ‘Lee was shouting: “Get the rope, get the rope.” I grabbed it as Stephen got hold of Peter and fell back into the boat with him, cushioning Peter’s landing and saying: “It’s all right, mate, I’ve got you.”
‘It must’ve been painful for him, now knowing the extent of his injuries. He was remarkably brave.’
‘He was on his way out,’ Sean surmises. ‘He was in shock, he was in pain. Hypothermia must’ve set in. Twenty minutes in that water and 20 minutes with his injury, and that’s a minimum of 20 minutes, underwater in that amount of pain. I don’t think he was feeling anything.’
Lee agrees: ‘Once we got him in the boat and he was laid out, he did go really quiet and almost shut his eyes. He was so relieved to be rescued, but we were worried these were signs of post-rescue collapse.’
Caught on camera
This video taken by a bystander shows just how challenging the sea conditions were that day in the harbour. It captures the moment the lifeboat crew grab Peter from the pier ladder and into the lifeboat just in time before the large wave comes round the corner and lifts the boat up.
Relief all round
‘I remember lying along the boat and they were all doing their jobs,’ Peter recalls. ‘One of them was behind me and held my head up on his legs. I wasn’t really in pain. I was just looking at the sky so I didn’t know where I was. There were loads of people, all along the top of the hill.
‘I swallowed a lot of seawater. I felt it going up my nose and going down my throat. It was like a burning sensation. That night in hospital I was sick and sick and sick. Seawater is awful, awful stuff.’
After the initial euphoria of getting Peter in the boat, the crew then had to figure out the best place to put him ashore.
It was too rough to reverse the lifeboat back up the slipway and into the trailer. And a net recovery was out of the question with Peter, Richard and Stephen in the bow of the boat.
They’d never done it before, but the tide was in far enough for Lee to go up the Roxby Beck River to a slipway where conditions were calmer and away from the crowds that had gathered.
‘After all the drama, it just calmed the situation down’, says Crew Member Drew Baxter, who helped transfer Peter onto the stretcher and into the awaiting ambulance. ‘It allowed us to concentrate on Peter’s leg and how best to get him out of the boat.’
An eternity in the water
As soon as she knew Peter was safe, Louisa was ready to go.
She too had swallowed a lot of seawater and was violently sick after being pulled out of the sea.
She was comforted by a couple on the pier, who then took her to the lifeboat station once Peter was in the lifeboat.
‘It felt like an eternity in the water,’ Louisa recalls. ‘In real time it was probably a matter of minutes. And waiting for Peter to be brought out and knowing that he was safe was an even longer eternity.’
‘Sean was like lightning. Once I got out, I remember this bearded fellow running backwards and forwards on his radio. And it didn’t for a minute compute that he was the lifeboat fellow. He was just organising everybody, and thank God he did.’
Sean followed the lifeboat on foot and checked in on Louisa on his way.
‘She’d obviously taken an awful amount of water so I was checking for signs of secondary drowning. I gave her one of our woolly bear thermal undersuits to change into to get her warmed up.
‘I then went to help the rest of the crew get Peter out of the boat. When the paramedics took over, I returned to check on Louisa and stayed with her until the decision was made to put her in the ambulance with Peter. The ambulance then transferred them both to the RAF Sea King helicopter, which had landed in a field above the village.’
Bearing the scars
Nine days later Peter was recovering at home.
The wound to Peter’s forehead was luckily just superficial, although he now bears a scar.
But the force of the wave broke his thigh bone, one of the hardest bones in the human body to break.
Surgeons at Middlesbrough’s James Cook Hospital had to insert a metal rod and two screws.
‘It was black and blue and nearly twice the size of my left leg,’ Peter says. ‘And you couldn’t see where my knee was. I thought I was going to lose my leg.’
‘I was just bruised from head to toe,’ Louisa says. ‘I looked like somebody had got a steam roller and rolled across me. But this [touching her hand], I still feel that now. And I sit here thinking: “Thank God.” Because that was where I tied the rope around my hand and the guy pulled me to safety.
‘I still distinctly remember the sounds, the noise of being underwater, the smell, the taste, everything I remember. We were so lucky.’
‘It certainly put things into perspective,’ Peter adds. ‘And stops you worrying about the small stuff.’
‘You can’t put into words our gratitude,’ Louisa continues. ‘Thank you is not enough. It really isn’t. I still can’t get over that these guys put their lives at risk like that.’
Crew moved to tears
A few days after their rescue, Louisa called to thank the crew and to update them on Peter’s condition. The message she left reduced them to tears.
‘There’s no better feeling than returning someone to their loved ones,’ Drew says. ‘You do loads of shouts over the years and you don’t hear anything back from anybody. And then you get a message like we had on Sean’s phone. And it makes it all worthwhile.’
‘If one of those two had been lost that day, the impact on their family, on their four children, would have been devastating,’ Richard says. ‘So it brings back a bit of pride and reminds us why we volunteer and how important it is.’
A job well done
‘Everyone has their own reasons for joining the RNLI,’ Sean says. ‘You just have to do one good shout and it drives it home why we’re here and why we train.’
‘We practise routines over and over and over again,’ Richard adds. ‘And when we’re doing it for real, in the heat of battle if you like, it proves the training works.’
‘Personally, it was probably the worst conditions in the harbour that I’ve had to deal with,’ Lee says. ‘So having faith in each other, the lifeboat and the equipment was crucial. And it’s our training that instils this faith.’
‘We came back and we had that feeling of a job well done,’ Drew says. ‘The whole crew did. Everyone worked together really well.’
‘With the lifeboat, ambulance and Sea King helicopter, it was a good all-round team effort,’ Sean adds. ‘But what that guy did on the pier saving Louisa’s life and tying Peter to the safety rail was extremely brave, and he deserves recognition too.'
RNLI crew training made all the difference during Peter's rescue. Contributions from a generous public keep RNLI lifeboat crews trained and ready to save lives, at Christmas and all year round. Can you help train lifeboat crews by making a donation?