Death on the rocks

Retained firefighter Damian Rowe, based at Lytham Fire Station, who fought to save a drowning child and his father whilst on holiday in Spain. PIC BY ROB LOCK'11-9-2012
Retained firefighter Damian Rowe, based at Lytham Fire Station, who fought to save a drowning child and his father whilst on holiday in Spain. PIC BY ROB LOCK'11-9-2012
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A Lytham firefighter has emerged as the unsung hero of a beach holiday tragedy that claimed the lives of a father and son.

Guardian Assurance pensions adviser Damian Rowe, 30, who also works as a retained firefighter, swam out in rough seas to assist a local lifeguard who was trying to save George Selby, 27, and his six year old son Louis.

The pair died just three hours after they arrived for their first ever foreign holiday at Calas de Mallorca on the Balearic island of Majorca.

The boy was swept off rocks by the sea after posing for pictures there. The family, from Essex, had scrambled onto the rocks after descending steep steps to a cove from the path above. George dived in to try to save his son, and managed to grab him, but the sea overcame them both as he tried to swim to shore.

Damian, who lives at Marton, was on the second day of his holiday at the same hotel as the family, and left girlfriend Hayley Staniforth’s side to race to the beach after seeing hotel staff dash past with life belts.

“I didn’t give it a second thought,” he said. “This is what I am trained to do. To save lives. Sadly I failed. I’ve had nightmares since. I replay what happened, wonder what I could have done differently. After what happened we just wanted to come home.

“I had even taken pictures the day before of the rocks – about 200m down steep steps. I saw people there and said it was too dangerous. The sea was rough, waves crashing over, there was a red flag on the beach, but nothing to bar the path down to the rocks. No barrier or warnings. Even the day after the drownings the hotel put some red tape across but guests removed it to go down there. It’s madness.”

George’s widow Abigail, who had seen the horror unfold with their other sons Mitchell, 14, and Dylan, 12, and her 10 year old niece Olivia, raised the alarm.

She later told a national newspaper: “George was with Louis dipping his feet in the water and they were laughing together. I turned round and heard Louis screaming. A giant wave had washed him away in an instant.”

Damian said: “I heard her screaming. I went to the beach and saw a small dinghy out at sea. I struck out for it at once with two other Englishmen and a young female pool guard from the hotel.

“It was little more than a cove so didn’t have lifeguards like the bigger beach nearby. A hotel lifeguard was in the dinghy with the child. He was crying. Someone was floating behind, tangled in the ropes, the boy’s father.

“The dinghy was barely bigger than the little boy. The sea was choppy but we battled through the currents to bring it back to shore. ”

The moment Damian could stand he seized the child. “He was just limp in my arms. I stripped off his T-shirt, laid him on the beach and commenced CPR. I didn’t have the equipment I’d usually use to pump air into lungs but I knew what to do – CPR is different for a child.

“People were crying and screaming. I just focused on trying to bring the little boy back. He had been in the sea 10-15 minutes and taken in a lot of water which came back up, along with his breakfast, but I couldn’t revive him.”

In a poignant aside he added: “I became aware of a child at my side. He was crying and told me he was the boy’s brother, I think it was Mitchell. He held Louis’ hand and said ‘is he going to be OK?’ His dad lay dead on the sands nearby. He was very brave. I kept at it until well after the ambulance arrived 20 minutes later. They pronounced him dead. It was even left to me to close his eyes. It was ages before they covered the bodies.”

The deaths came less than two weeks after a five-year-old British girl and her 66-year-old grandfather were drowned in Portugal after they were hit by a large wave.

The same week, a Cambridge University student drowned while swimming off the Maltese island of Comino.

Last year an elderly British holidaymaker was drowned after being swept from the shore while swimming at a small cove on the Costa del Sol.

Damian concludes: “I was upset when I saw pictures of the family in a national newspaper the other day – because it was taken moments before the boy and his dad died. I recognised the little lad’s clothing from having carried him from the sea.

“I’m a firefighter not a coastguard officer but we have the same instinct to save lives.

“But our safety standards are far more stringent in this country. We highlight dangers, put out warning signs, barrier off areas if swimmers are at risk.

“Holidaymakers can’t count on that level of protection abroad and that’s the lesson that has to be learned from this and other tragedies.

“I’d urge holidaymakers to stay alert to danger at all times. You don’t go on holiday to die.”