The first RNLI Gallantry Medals are to be awarded to the Flood Rescue Team for daring rescue of woman in swollen Devon river.
Three members of the RNLI’s Flood Rescue Team have been recognised for their part in the rescue of a woman clinging to a branch in fast-flowing flood waters in Umberleigh, Devon on 23 December 2012. It is the first time that RNLI volunteers have been awarded medals for a flood rescue.
Boat Team Leader Paul Eastment, 46, is to be awarded the RNLI Bronze Medal for Gallantry – one of the Institution’s highest accolades – for his courage, leadership and determination in extremely challenging conditions. Helmsman Chris Missen, 25, and Crew Member Martin Blaker-Rowe, 33, will both also be awarded the Bronze Medal for Gallantry for their part in the rescue.
Vanessa Glover, 46, the woman rescued by the team, met Paul and Chris at the site of the rescue today. She said: ‘I want to thank you for your bravery, courage, determination, professionalism and commendable quality of character. You embody the highest principles of selflessness I know: “greater love hath no man then that he lay down his life for friends.” But you were prepared to do that for a stranger and that stranger was me and in so doing you gave me the gift of life and the joy of knowing that Santa called on my son at Christmas. I will hold you in my heart forever. Thank you for saving my life.'
The rescue took place in the early hours of 23 December at Umberleigh where the river Taw had reached 3.5 meters above its normal range. Mother-of-one Vanessa Glover had been swept from her car after it was forced off a road by powerful flood water, leaving her husband and 7-year-old son clinging to the car roof. She had managed to catch hold of a branch but a rescue helicopter was over an hour away and initial rescue attempts were unsuccessful. With no other options available, the RNLI’s Flood Rescue Team decided to launch.
The situation was inherently dangerous: the team was unfamiliar with the area, it was dark, the flood waters were moving at 12 knots and carrying debris. A bridge a few hundred metres downstream also posed a significant risk – anything, including a boat, could be sucked beneath it with the force of the water. If there was a mechanical failure, or if the engine was struck by debris, caught on an unseen hazard, or at worst the boat capsized, the consequences could be disastrous. To add to this, the water level was still rising and conditions deteriorating as heavy rain continued to fall.
At 1.51am the RNLI Flood Rescue Team launched their modified Arancia rescue boat with Chris Missen at the helm. Boat team leader Paul Eastment and crew member Martin Blaker-Rowe worked together to look for debris coming downstream and guide Chris along the safest route to the casualty.
Chris expertly maneuvered the boat in the darkness with only the crews’ headtorches and a small spotlight for help. Meanwhile the police helicopter was hovering over the spot where Mrs Glover clung to the branch, using their spotlight to indicate her location to the boat crew below.
Chris carefully directed the boat just downstream of Mrs Glover, where maintaining a steady position in such conditions was extremely difficult. Martin and Paul reached for Mrs Glover and immediately started to pull her into the boat. She was extremely cold, and it is unlikely she would have been physically able to hold onto the branch for much longer. There was no time or space to get Mrs Glover into a comfortable position and Chris retraced his steps out into the flow and upstream. At 1.57am Mrs Glover was successfully recovered to the shore, assessed and given first aid treatment. She had been in the water for 50 minutes.
Paul Eastment said: ‘I was amazed and delighted, gobsmacked even, when I heard I’d been awarded an RNLI Bronze Medal for Gallantry. For our actions during this rescue to be recognised is the proudest moment of my career. Most importantly for me was the recognition for the whole team – the risk to all of us was significant and each member of the team was absolutely vital to the success of the rescue.'
Michael Vlasto, RNLI Operations Director, said: ‘This was a rescue carried out in the true spirit of the RNLI; the crew assessed the risks and made the decision collectively that despite the extremely high risk to themselves, the benefit of attempting the rescue was greater. This decision and their skill in extremely challenging circumstances unquestionably saved Mrs Glover’s life. Their selfless and courageous actions meant that a family could be reunited with a mother and wife they thought was lost, two days before Christmas.’
Neil Blackburn, Group Manager with Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service and on scene incident commander, said: ‘During my 26 years in the Fire and Rescue Service, this would rate amongst the most challenging incidents with which I have had to contend. Their efforts…without doubt saved the life of Mrs Glover.’
Vanessa Glover added: ‘Please give as generously as you are able to support the work of the RNLI so that we might, through our combined efforts, say thank you to these remarkable heroes and inspirational role models in ways that are meaningful to them.
'I also want to say thank you to Natalie, Terry, Ben, Steve, John, Richard Tate, The Alford family and every member of the emergency services involved in the Umberleigh incident however remotely. Thank you all for your part in my rescue, it meant and means so much to me that you were there.'
RNLI Shore Crew Member Bernie Mannings, 50, and Driver Jason Dunlop, 40, will also be recognized with the Thanks of the Institution Inscribed on Vellum. RNLI Incident Commander Robin Goodlad will be awarded the Letter of Thanks from the Chairman of the Institution. They supported the boat team throughout the incident, driving through flooded roads to the launch site and, once safely there, contributing to the difficult decisions the team had to make.
Detailed rescue report
On 22 December, six severe flood warnings were in place for the South West in the evening as heavy rain continued to fall on the already saturated ground. Two boat teams from the RNLI’s Flood Rescue Team had been asked to deploy by the Fire and Rescue Service National Coordination Centre and arrived in Barnstaple at 12.30am. They were ready to launch 15 minutes later.
Meanwhile, ten miles south of Barnstaple at Umberleigh, the River Taw reached almost 3.5 metres above its normal range and had flooded the surrounding fields.
The Glover family (Paul Glover, Vanessa Glover and their 7 year old son Silas) were driving home to South Molton at approximately 1am on 23 December through the flood water, which was 1.2 metres deep. The fast flowing water was travelling at 12 knots and was enough to lift the Glover’s car and pin it against a hedge, which started to break. Mr Glover and Silas managed to climb on top of the vehicle and onto the roof. But as Mrs Glover tried to join them, she was swept away. Mr Glover said that she told him to look after their son as she was pulled into the water.
Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service (DSFRS) were soon on scene along with a local farmer and his JCB. Mr Glover and Silas were brought to safety by climbing into the front bucket of the JCB. It was now 1.10am and the rescuers’ efforts turned to finding Mrs Glover.
Mrs Glover had been washed through a garden and across a scrapyard towards the River Taw. Had she not managed to grab the one tree in her path on the edge of the river bank she would have been swept downstream into the river itself.
At 1.15am, the RNLI Flood Rescue Team was asked to send one of its boats to Umberleigh to help look for Mrs Glover. Even getting the rescue boat to the launching site on the A377 was difficult on the flooded roads, and the team arrived at 1.40am. DSFRS had three fire pumps, one water rescue unit and boat, and one incident command vehicle already at the scene.
By this time, Mrs Glover had been in the cold water for 30 minutes and if she was washed further downstream the chances of finding her would be slim. Initial rescue attempts had been unsuccessful and a rescue by helicopter was over an hour away.
With no other rescue options available, the RNLI Flood Rescue Team decided to launch, a decision based upon their skill and experience levels, and their confidence in the capability of the boat.
The situation was inherently dangerous: the team was unfamiliar with the area, it was dark, the flood waters were moving at 12 knots and carried debris. A bridge a few hundred metres downstream also posed a significant risk – anything, including a boat pushed against it could be sucked beneath it with the force of the water. Every tree and bush which lined the river and field was also a potential hazard. The crew didn’t just face water-related dangers; the height of the flood waters meant that overhead power cables were now only 2 or 3 metres above the waterline in the main river channel. There was no bankside access, and no means to get a second boat in downstream, or any form of downstream back up. The water level was still rising and conditions deteriorating.
If there was a mechanical failure, or the engine was struck by debris, caught on an unseen hazard, or at worst the boat capsized, the consequences could be disastrous. However the team decided that they would attempt the rescue, despite the considerable risk to themselves.
There was no safe launch site on the west side of the river, so Team Leader Paul Eastment and Shore Crew Member Bernie Mannings decided to launch the boat on the east side and therefore reduce the risk of crossing the flow once the boat was in the water. But carrying out this plan would be difficult as the boat needed to be towed along already flooded roads. The team and one DSFRS member formed a v-shaped formation with Martin Blaker-Rowe at the front and each person holding onto another for stability. They walked ahead of the vehicle to look for underwater hazards.
At 1.51am, the RNLI Flood Rescue Team launched their boat with Chris Missen at the helm, Team Leader Paul Eastment, and Martin Blaker-Rowe as crew. Martin kept a look out upstream and directed Chris on how to avoid any debris while Paul instructed Chris on the best route to take through the fast-flowing water. Chris expertly maneuvered the boat in the darkness with only the crew members’ headlamps and a small spotlight for help. Meanwhile the police helicopter was hovering over the spot where Mrs Glover clung to the branch, using their spotlight to indicate her location to the boat crew.
Having tested the boat’s performance at the edge of the flow, Chris moved carefully downstream, identifying possible exit routes should they get into difficulty. As he positioned the boat just downstream of Mrs Glover, Chris noticed significant jolting and knocks being transferred through the engine as underwater debris struck the propeller guard and engine leg. Any of this debris could have caused gearbox failure if it had entered the propeller guard and stalled the propeller. There was also the risk that the boat itself could be punctured, which would have significantly affected the handling of the inflatable boat at best, or been catastrophic at worst.
Maintaining a steady position in such conditions was extremely difficult and Chris used all his skill to maintain control of the boat. Martin and Paul reached for Mrs Glover and immediately started to pull her into the boat. All the while, Chris maintained the boat’s position.
Martin assessed Mrs Glover’s condition – she was extremely cold, and it is unlikely she would have been physically able to hold onto the branch for much longer. There was no time to get Mrs Glover in a comfortable position, nor space within the confines of the boat to get her in the recovery position. Chris then retraced his steps out into the flow and upstream. Even with the engine at full throttle, the boat was only making 4 knots (in favourable conditions, this type of boat is capable of 20 knots).
Once further upstream, Chris steered the boat sideways across the flow towards the spot where they originally launched. However, an eddy began to pull the bow of the boat dangerously back in towards the main flow. Chris expertly put the engine in reverse to counteract this and then drove the boat forward towards dry land and safety. To reach the launching spot, Chris had to maneuver the boat through a gate and along the flooded A377.
At 1.57am Mrs Glover was successfully recovered to the shore, assessed and given first aid treatment. She had been in the water for 50 minutes.
The boat crew recovered the boat to the trailer and left the scene at 2.10am. On the way back to Barnstaple they were flagged down by two people in Bishop Tawton reporting two residents stranded in a house. The team then relaunched and continued to help with rescues in the village until 3.30am.
Notes to Editors
- Video shows the rescue taken from the police helicopter. The 'download' button is not working, so to get a copy, please contact the RNLI Press Office on 01202 336789.
- Photo captions:
- Primary photo shows the Boat Team(l-r) Chris Missen with Vanessa Glover and Paul Eastment. Credit RNLI/Tamsin Thomas
- Photo 2 shows (L-R) Chris Missen, Vanessa Glover, Paul Glover and Paul Eastment at the site of the rescue after the water level had dropped. Credit RNLI/Robin Goodlad
- Photo 3 shows the Boat Team at the site of the rescue after the water level had dropped (L-R) Crew Member Martin Blaker-Rowe, Boat Team Leader Paul Eastment Crew Member Chris Missen. Credit RNLI/Robin Goodlad
- Photo 4 Boat Team Leader Paul Eastment. Credit RNLI/Robin Goodlad
- Photo 5 Crew Member Martin Blaker-Rowe. Credit RNLI/Robin Goodlad
- Attached is a diagram of the rescue. Credit RNLI.
- More photos are available, please contact the RNLI Press Office on 01202 336789.
- Summary of Awards:
- RNLI Bronze Medal for Gallantry awarded to Paul Eastment, 46, Porthcawl lifeboat station volunteer.
- RNLI Bronze Medal for Gallantry awarded to Chris Missen, 25, Porthcawl lifeboat station volunteer.
- RNLI Bronze Medal for Gallantry awarded to Martin Blaker-Rowe, 33, Chiswick lifeboat station volunteer and Poole-based RNLI Trainer.
- Thanks of the Institution Inscribed on Vellum awarded to Bernie Mannings, 50, Poole-based RNLI Trainer.
- Thanks of the Institution Inscribed on Vellum awarded to Jason Dunlop, 40, Penarth lifeboat station volunteer.
- Letter of Thanks from the Chairman of the Institution awarded to Robin Goodlad, RNLI Flood Response Manager.
- The awards will be presented at the RNLI’s Annual Presentation of Awards ceremony on 23 May 2012 at the Barbican, London.
- The Flood Rescue Team is made up of volunteers taken from the RNLI’s lifeboat station and staff. They undertake additional, specialist training in swift water rescue.
- Toolstation is the official sponsor of the RNLI Flood Rescue Team (FRT). Based in Bridgwater, Somerset, it is one of Britain’s fastest growing suppliers of tools and fixings for the building trade. Toolstation offers customers a stock range of over 10,000 Catalogue lines and a multi-channel ordering platform, whereby goods can be picked up from over 100 branches nationwide, or ordered by telephone or online, with free next-day delivery.
- Formed in 2000, the RNLI charity's Flood Rescue Team is available at 24 hours notice to deploy anywhere in the world where waterborne search and rescue is needed due to natural disaster.
The RNLI FRT is also a declared facility to the UK Government via the Department for International Development (DfID).
- RNLI FRT members are all either serving volunteer lifeboat crew members or operational RNLI staff who volunteer to be a part of the team.
- The RNLI also has representation on the Flood Response National Enhancement Programme (FRNEP), which is being led by Defra in England and is responsible for delivering a new flood rescue capability.
For more information please contact Isla Reynolds, Public Relations Officer, on 01202 663127 or 07899 076224 or by email at email@example.com. Alternatively, please contact the RNLI Press Office on 01202 336789.