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Many hands make lifesaving work

How many people does it take to save a life? One? Ten? And when do you stop counting?

Many hands make lifesaving work

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard (reconstruction)

There’s the lifeguard whose experience and local knowledge helps him spot someone in trouble. The lifeboat crew member who cares for and reassures a casualty, cold and in pain. And what about the fundraiser who sells souvenirs or runs marathons to keep that lifeboat afloat, with its crew trained and ready?

Behind every RNLI rescue, there is a cast of thousands. We caught up with just some of the frontline people to whom one man owes his life.

The rescue

On the late May Bank Holiday, Lifeguard Mike Procter was making a final sweep of Hilbre Island, at the far end of the vast flat sands of West Kirby. It’s a regular check made every day before the island is cut off by the tide. When he found a seriously injured man in the water, almost obscured by the overhanging cliff edge from where he’d fallen, Mike instantly knew he’d need the help of his fellow lifeguards and local lifeboat crews from West Kirby and Hoylake.

Together, the lifeguards and lifeboat crews made their long and difficult rescue: they fought to protect the casualty from the incoming waves, to treat and minimise the pain from his horrific injuries, to lift him gently out of the sea over sharp and slippery rocks – and ultimately to see him safely to hospital in a search and rescue helicopter from RAF Valley.

Although he was in a coma for some time and has sustained potentially life-altering injuries, the man is making progress and is no longer in a critical condition.

The lifeguards

The sands at West Kirby have been watched over by lifeguards for many years. This year, the RNLI adopted the service, meaning that everyone at the scene had completed the same RNLI casualty care training.

Mike Procter

Mike has been lifeguarding for 8 years, inspired by his dad Norman’s love of the job. His vigilance meant the casualty wasn’t left seriously injured and alone, at the mercy of a flooding tide.

‘I shouted, “Are you alright there mate?” and he just looked up and then looked away, holding onto this rock. So he wasn't swimming up and down, he wasn't trying to get out or in. Something wasn't right.

‘Suddenly he started getting weaker and slipping underneath the water, so my dad jumped in, secured him, making sure his head and spine were as stable as possible. I went in to support his lower half, and we took it from there.

‘I felt really great when I saw another of our lifeguards, Tom Corlett, coming over with the responder bag and the spine board, and then I saw the inshore lifeboat turn up, and then the Hoylake boat turn up, and then the helicopter ... so the casualty must have felt so reassured that people kept coming to look after him. I told him, “You're in the best position you can possibly be in. All these people – you've got so much help”.

‘And it's the same training as well, so everyone from the RNLI’s speaking the same language.’

Norman Procter

After 23 years working in industry, Norman took his love of cycling, running and swimming and made the move to lifeguarding. In 14 years he’s never looked back. Norman stayed by the casualty’s side throughout the rescue, risking hypothermia.

‘I was coming over the top of Hilbre Island on the quad bike when Mike radioed me. I went to him straight away and saw a man in the water, clinging to a rock, shouting and confused.‘I didn’t have time to get a wetsuit on but I was nearest, so I jumped in and got the rescue tube under the man as best I could, got hold of his head, shouted to Mike to call for the lifeboats. We just tried to keep his head up and keep his airway open, keep him stabilised, but it was very windy, with the waves coming in, knocking us over, the tide coming in, flooding up, getting higher and higher … Oh it was endless.

‘The rocks are full of barnacles as well. Tom's feet were cut to bits, my knees were cut to bits, at the time you're not even thinking of that ... you don't realise until you're finished the bruises and cuts from getting bashed on the rocks.

‘It was about 20 minutes on our own like that until the inshore lifeboat arrived. We just waited for a wave and then Tom managed to get the spine board on the crest of the wave and slipped it under the casualty. Adie from the lifeboat crew got on the other side and the four of us managed to struggle up the rocks.

‘The water had been supporting the man, and as soon as his weight was onto the hard board, that's when the pain really hit him. I ended up with Entonox in one hand and the oxygen in the other, trying to speak to him to keep him conscious, because he was fading out and coming back.

‘I just think the way everyone worked together was really good. I think both lads did excellent – I'm just glad they were both here with me. We had our fourth lifeguard, George Welch, back at the base looking after the beach. And the boats as well, the lads were so professional. We’ve never worked with them, but it just clicked. They knew exactly what we were up to.’

The inshore lifeboat

The helm of West Kirby’s D class lifeboat saw the choppy conditions around the island and settled on a tricky manoeuvre known as veering down. After anchoring further off, Stuart Clark carefully reversed the lifeboat closer to the scene, to avoid bumping the casualty or creating further wash. He and Crew Member Richard Mercer then helped to transfer two lifeboat crew members ashore.

Crew Member Adie Gregan

Adie was the first crew member to wade ashore and help the lifeguards. He took command of the scene – a vital role to coordinate everyone’s efforts – later stepping back to work the highline for the helicopter winchman.

‘As we got closer, I could see the two lifeguards waist-deep in water, trying to stabilise the casualty. The rocks around them were covered in seaweed. They just didn’t have the strength or grip to get him out on their own. Every time a wave came in the poor guy was screaming in pain.

‘We agreed that we just had to get him out because the tide was flooding. We removed the rescue tube and slipped a spine board under him, then hauled him up onto a rocky shelf just above us. There was blood everywhere. I knew at that point there was no way we could get him up the slippery, mossy cliff – and for a spinal injury on those waves, getting him out by boat didn’t look good either. I took the radio and asked the Coastguard for the helicopter straight away.

‘There were moments when it was tough, but what can you do? You can’t just leave. At one point, as the extent of his injuries was becoming clear, and the helicopter was potentially 30 minutes away on another job, it felt like one thing after another. Then suddenly we got the call that the helicopter was only 12 minutes away, and that was a clarity moment: boom, right we’re onto something now, we’re minutes away from someone coming to get him out of here.

‘The guy’s alive because the lifeguards did that sweep and found him and sat in the water with him. They wouldn’t leave him. Even when Norman was getting very cold and we’d put a jacket over him, he wouldn’t leave the guy’s side.’

The all-weather lifeboat

The volunteers at Hoylake recently received a new Shannon class lifeboat, Edmund Hawthorn Micklewood. The craft is launched and recovered by an innovative turntable system that saves vital minutes in heading to the rescue. The Shannon is also far more manoeuvrable than its predecessor, the Mersey, meaning that it can operate safely in tight spaces and shallow waters.

Shore Crew Member Marcus Swaine

Marcus is one of many volunteers who see the Shannon lifeboat launched safely to the rescue and recovered to the boathouse when the work is done. Marcus was driving the Shannon launch and recovery vehicle on the day.

‘The lifeboat was hard aground on the sand, ready to be recovered, as the crew had just been out on exercise. The first thing I knew about the shout, I was sat in the cab and my pager went off and I thought, what's going on here?!

‘I was just looking to our coxswain Andy and he makes the sign that they’re heading straight back out. And we did it – got them in, spun them round, sent them off – in about 12 minutes. There’s no way we would have done that with the Mersey. It would have been at least half an hour.’

Second Coxswain and Mechanic Andy Dodd

Andy was duty coxswain on the day, making him responsible for the crew and his lifeboat’s role in the rescue. He was also at the wheel of the lifeboat throughout.

‘We’d just got back from a cracking day escorting Cunard’s Three Queens into Liverpool. As soon as we hit the beach and told the Coastguard we were home, they came back to say they needed us on Hilbre Island.

‘As we approached you could hear the screams of the casualty, over our engine noise. We transferred Ian and the basket stretcher to West Kirby who were anchored close by, and then he waded ashore. The good thing about the Shannon is we got alongside the inshore lifeboat about a metre away from the rocks. We would probably not have committed the Mersey class into somewhere like that, but with the water jets we could just nip in and out, and Ian was away and gone.’

Crew Member and Casualty Carer Ian Davies

Ian has been a lifeboat volunteer for over 20 years. He transferred a stretcher to West Kirby’s D class lifeboat, then waded ashore to help Norman, Mike, George and Adie to stabilise and monitor the casualty.

‘Where they dropped me off it was quite deep, but fortunately a surge of the tide washed me onto the rocks. I just held on, the water retreated, and I was able to climb out.

‘In all my time on the crew, this was by far the most traumatic thing that I've ever witnessed, to see a human being in that much pain. You just need to do what you can to try and help him out of that situation.

‘When we had him stabilised and he was lying in the stretcher, I was holding his hand to offer him some comfort and I felt him squeezing back. I just had a moment where I thought, what a privileged position I am in – because I’m here at the pointy end of an arrowhead, and behind me are all the guys on the boat who got me there, all the guys on the shore who put us in the water, all the station management, the fundraisers … and everybody, everybody behind me. And I had the role of holding that man’s hand and caring for him in what could have been the last few minutes of his life. It was a massive moment.

‘The teamwork really shone through that day. The lifeguards said they'd done the RNLI’s casualty care course, so I realised that they knew the process and how we were going to deal with it. I didn't have to explain anything and it was like they were a part of our crew, even though I had never met them before.’

UPDATE June 2016: Lifeguards Mike Procter, Norman Procter and Tom Corlett have received the Alison Saunders Award for the most meritorious lifeguard rescue of 2015.