A Hero

I have just read the most incredible story.

I met Brendan Woodhouse a few months ago at a training day about working in Calais.

Yesterday I received a beautiful message in which he told me that our meeting had inspired him to act, and that without my crazy story, he would not have made the journey to Lesvos. I will be forever grateful that he did as this is what happened to him…

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“I truly don’t know where to start with this story, words could never do it justice. I was part of a team of 8 that rescued 70 people this morning, in the most dramatic of situations that I have ever witnessed. I’ve been a firefighter for 13 years, but nothing comes close to this.

I can only tell my story, but each of the team of 8 rescued babies, children, women and men from the sea and untold tragedy was averted. I’ll tell my story, and let them tell theirs.

At 05:50, I was in lookout duty at Korakas lighthouse, when I saw a refugee boat turn its lights on, maybe 200m from land. I woke the others up, and went with our team leader Hekla María Friðriksdóttir to identify the boats location. It hit the rocks beyond the lighthouse, and the rubber dinghy burst on one side, capsizing and flipping all 35 people in to the sea, 30m from the shore.

The panic, the screaming, and the absolute peril could be heard from the shore. Mothers and fathers were screaming out names and babies could be heard screaming.

While this was happening, I took off my coat and dropped it on the floor as I ran down to the sea, zipping up my wetsuit on the way. I put my helmet on as I entered the sea which was as black as the night sky above.

The sounds within that sea will haunt me forever. People were hysterical, panicking, screaming, sobbing and frightened beyond belief.

I swam past the first people bobbing up and down in the water, to where I could hear children crying, their sounds were distinctive. I reached a family of 5, all huddled together in their lifejackets. In the middle of them was a baby, less than two years old. I could see with my head torch that he was taking on water, and I swam, towing them back to the shore. The fear on their faces was palpable.

Eventually, I was able to put my feet on the rocks below and I told them that they could stand. I looked back and could see a sea of people behind me. Most were in their ill fitting lifejackets, but some were without. Empty lifejackets bobbed in the water, causing confusion. I swam out again.

I swam past people screaming for their lives. I was a tough call, but I could hear a haunting sound that I’ll never forget. It was the sound of a mother who had lost her baby.

I came across the capsized boat and I could see people clinging to it for their lives, begging me for help. I decided that they stood a better chance and I looked to my right. I could see where the mother was who was screaming.

While everyone else was facing the shore shouting for help, she was facing out to sea, helpless in her lifejacket. She shouted to me, pointing out to sea. Maybe another 15m away, I could see a little black dot, bobbing up and down in the water.

I swam as fast as I could, knowing that I was putting my life in danger, as I’m not the greatest of swimmers. The little black dot was between 60m and 70m from the shore.

Eventually I reached it. A 5 month old baby girl, wrapped in a blanket, face down in the water, with no lifejacket at all. I grabbed her and looked at her face. Her eyes were rolled back, she was not breathing. She was as white as can be and I could see that she was dead, but I knew that she stood a chance.

I swam backstroke, with her on my chest, facing the stars. I kicked with my legs as fast as I could. With my left arm I paddled and with my right arm, I pressed up and down on her chest as I swam.
I swam past people screaming for help. I swam past children lost at sea. I swam with everything I had and more. I prayed to a God that I never speak to, begging for her life.

Eventually, I reached down with my feet and my foot touched a rock. I balanced as best as I could and went to give her 5 rescue breaths. After the second breath, she sicked up the water from inside her lungs and started to cry. It was the most beautiful sound in the world, for I knew that I had breathed life back into her.
I swam for the shore again and after only a few meters, I came across Joost Poppe Jan Rentema. I asked him to take the baby as I could continue no longer. He took the little child back to the shore and I turned around again.

I could see many people still in the water, but I was exhausted. I had to leave them or I would have drowned in the sea. I climbed onto a rock knelt down and panted my lungs out.

After maybe 20 seconds, I composed myself and went to help the people that had been taken up to the lighthouse. I looked behind and could see a Greek fishing boat, plucking innocent souls from the sea. Some of my team were still in the water rescuing people, and carrying babies and children back. I ran up the cliffside steps to help the doctor.

As I got to the medical emergency room, the doctor Freeha Arshad, was treating the baby for hypothermia. Some of the team were getting blankets and clothes. The baby was taken out of her set clothes and I helped the doctor put IV fluids inside of her after warming them in a pan of water. The baby was in respiratory distress, so we were giving her assisted breaths. One bag of fluids was used as a hot water bottle and the other to put warm fluids into her veins to overcome the hypothermia.

She could have died twice this morning, without the calm actions of an obviously incredibly experienced doctor. Eventually, we stabilized her and drove her to meet with an ambulance. Then she was taken to hospital where she has recovered well.

We left the ambulance and headed back down to the lighthouse where another boat, with another 35 people on board was approaching. This was a solid hulled boat which boomed as it crashed in to the rocks.

This time, the people stayed on board, and by now, it was light. We followed our procedure, calming people down and helping them from the boat.

At Korakas lighthouse, we always try to divert the boats away to the safer landing points at skala beach. This morning showed us exactly why. In 2007, a similar incident occurred there, and 12 people drowned. But, in 2007, there was no lighthouse refugee relief team. This team is so important and everyday it saves lives, but it is underfunded. They need your help to save more innocent souls. Please donate to them now.

Here’s the link: https://www.facebook.com/lighthouserelief/

I just want to finish this post with a message of love to the rest of the team at the lighthouse last night. It’s a day that I’ll never forget, and I love you all!”

Brendan, you are my hero.

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