New Quay: A race against the tide
A pot of grease and a can of spray oil. Not the usual items a lifeboat crew would take with them on a shout. But then this was no ordinary rescue.
When our New Quay crew were called out on 11 July to a young girl who had got her foot trapped in between some rocks on Aberaeron Beach, they knew they had to act fast.
The tide was on its way in. Not only that, it was a spring tide meaning the water would be higher than usual.
But when they arrived on scene, their worst fears were realised. Nine-year-old Eira Harvey was actually trapped deep down inside the sea defence boulders.
In an hour or so, the rocks and Eira would be completely submerged.
Coming, ready or not
Just moments earlier, Eira had been happily playing a game of hide and seek on the beach with members of her after school art club, Ray Ceredigion.
It was such a lovely sunny afternoon, the art club volunteers decided to take the children down to the beach.
But when Eira was looking for somewhere to hide, she slipped and fell down a gap in between the huge boulders. Her legs were pinned so closely together in the confined space, that when she tried to move, she was stuck fast by one of her wellington boots.
It was the Ray Ceredigion volunteers' turn to seek. Luckily, volunteers Rhodri and Jamie soon found Eira huddled and stuck between the rocks.
Rhodri tried to help Eira free her trapped foot. He told her to imagine she was kicking a football. But it just wouldn’t budge.
So Rhodri and Jamie called 999 for the Coastguard and comforted Eira until help arrived.
An unusual first shout for Tom
The sea was calm with a slight swell, making it easy for New Quay’s Senior Helm Brett Stones to navigate the D class inshore lifeboat, Audrey LJ, close to the rocks and hold her steady there on his own.
While Helm and Station Mechanic Ben Billingham and Crew Member Tom Evans stepped ashore, Brett stayed close enough to understand what was going on so that he could keep Milford Haven Coastguard informed of the situation over the radio.
For 17-year-old Crew Member Tom Evans, this was his first shout.
‘I was very nervous going out as I wasn’t sure what to expect,’ Tom says. ‘But the experience of Ben and Brett on the boat and the training I’d had during my first few months on the crew helped me. And once I knew what was going on, I wasn’t so nervous.’
Ben and Tom clambered over the slippery green algae-covered rocks to reach Eira, who was being comforted by two police officers.
With the clock ticking and being the first rescue team on scene, Ben knew he had to assess the situation as quickly as possible to figure out how to save Eira.
He reassured Eira and established she could only wiggle her toes in her welllies – her foot was still trapped.
‘Brett, get the scissors out the first aid kit.’
Ben’s first idea was to get Eira to try and cut around her welly to free her leg.
Before passing the scissors down to her, Ben asked for a piece of string so that he could tie the scissors around Eira’s wrist. That way she couldn’t drop them.
Eira did very well and cut down her welly as best she could. But her foot just wouldn’t budge.
Time was running out
As the waves started to crash against the rocks with the force of the incoming tide, the danger Eira was in started to become more apparent.
The sea spray was already reaching the rescue teams and one of the police officers laid a coat over the hole to protect Eira from getting wet.
Time was running out. And with the growing concern for Eira’s safety, the sense of urgency increased.
By this time, members of the local Coastguard Rescue Team and Fire and Rescue Service had arrived.
As a last resort, the Fire and Rescue Service were to implement their contingency plan, which would involve using hydraulic air bags to separate the rocks enough to free Eira’s foot.
Despite all of the commotion going on around her, Eira remained incredibly calm.
‘She was fantastically brave and calm, which helped everyone stay calm,’ Ben says. ‘I think being so far down in the rocks and not being able to see the sea coming in and how many emergency personnel were there also helped to keep her calm.’
Then Ben had an idea. He’d overheard one of the firefighters saying that no one could fit down the hole in between the rocks to help free Eira.
But Ben thought otherwise.
‘Tom, will you fit down there mate?’
With Tom’s slight build, Ben felt confident he could do it. And sure enough, without hesitation, Tom removed his safety helmet and lifejacket and climbed down in between the rocks.
But only after Ben told him: ‘If you don’t think you can do it, don’t do it right?’
The last thing he wanted was for Tom to get stuck too.
Cutting Eira free
It was a tight squeeze for Tom, but once he was down in the hole there was more room.
He crawled behind Eira and tried to push her foot free, but it still held fast.
So Ben passed him the scissors and told him to cut around her welly as much as he could.
By now Eira was tiring and she was beginning to feel sore. But she knew Tom was trying to help her and she cooperated well.
Tom told Eira exactly what he was doing to keep her calm and reassured.
As he couldn’t reach the front of her welly, he passed the scissors to her so she could cut further down the front of it.
When she’d cut as far as she could, Eira passed the scissors back to Tom so that he could cut down the back of her welly.
As Eira’s leg started to move, Ben encouraged Tom to carry on cutting. And before long there was a cheer signalling Eira was free at last.
‘Leave the wellies’
To help Eira out of the hole, Ben asked for some rope to tie under her shoulders.
Passing the ends of the rope to members of the other emergency services, he told them to gently raise her up as she climbed out.
Tom helped to lift Eira from inside the hole and continued to reassure her until she was safely out.
‘You’re doing good, OK,’ he said. ‘Leave the wellies behind, you can buy a new pair!’
From determination to jubilation
Back in the lifeboat, Brett sensed Eira was free from the faces of the emergency services. Recalling the moment, Brett says: ‘I’d got goosebumps all over me and, to be honest, I got a bit choked up.
‘When I called up Milford Haven Coastguard to tell them that she was free, I had to take a big pause to compose myself midway through the transmission.’
‘The thought of what might have been is unbearable’
Once Eira was checked over and given some time to get her bearings, she was escorted to a waiting ambulance and taken to hospital as a precaution.
‘It’s a very odd feeling to see your daughter stuck down a hole with so many emergency crew attending to her,’ says Eira’s mum Belinda.
‘We were so proud of her and everyone that helped. The thought of what might have been is unbearable and every parent’s worst nightmare.
‘Needless to say the children didn’t leave my side for the next 72 hours and thought us unreasonable when we wouldn’t let them play on the sea defences at New Quay the following day!’
A great team effort
The pot of grease and spray oil weren’t used in the end. But the fact that Ben had the forethought to take these with him, based on the brief details he had about the incident, is testament to his crew training.
And it was thanks to their training that the crew worked so well as a team.
Speaking about how the rescue went, Ben says: ‘Considering Tom only had a few months training under him and was relatively new to the crew he performed great, listened to instruction and carried out the task in hand. A great crewman for the future.
‘And Brett was great in sorting out any kit that was needed and relaying information to the Coastguard over the radio. A great team effort.
‘In my 14 years with the RNLI this is the most unusual and one of the most challenging call-outs I have been on.
‘It wasn’t dangerous for the crew as such, but not knowing if Eira would be covered by the tide if it came in was a worrying thought.’
A happy reunion
Just days later, Eira and her family visited New Quay Lifeboat Station to thank her rescuers.
‘I felt happy that I had the chance to see them again and to say thank you,’ Eira says.
‘I couldn’t believe that by getting my foot stuck, I got to meet so many wonderful and lovely people. They made a fuss of us all and showed us round the boat.
‘I did want to be part of the Mountain Rescue Team when I grow up but now I want to be part of the RNLI!’
Belinda adds: ‘The whole crew made us feel so welcome when we went down to meet them.
‘They helped to turn a potentially scary incident into something that was amazing and will always be a strange-but-true memory.
‘Their speed, professionalism and close working relationships shine through and we will be forever grateful.
‘A truly fabulous group of men.’
And what of Eira’s infamous wellies?
‘I didn’t need a new pair of wellies because they weren’t mine, they were Ray Ceredigion’s wellies.
'I still have them!’
We can only train and equip volunteers like Tom, Ben and Brett thanks to your generous donations. Support crew training with a one-off or regular gift.