From festivities to flood waters

Our Flood Rescue Team (FRT) went to the aid of hundreds of people during Winter floods – including a stranded family.

It should have been an exciting, festive family stay in Cumbria. But when young brothers Sebastian and Jacob Holmes huddled together on a bunk bed on the night of 6 December, they watched rising floodwater sweep through the bungalow where they were staying. Meanwhile their grandparents – who were babysitting the pair – frantically waved flashlights in the hope of rescue, knowing that floodwaters like this had hit homes across the county. Could anyone come to their aid?

The two boys were staying with their grandparents, Kevin and Mary, along with their cousin Haydn and his pregnant girlfriend Samara in a remote bungalow in the Levens area. Fast-flowing floodwater had stranded the family for hours. And then it began to rise. Mary consoled Sebastian (5) and Jacob (3), while Haydn and Samara climbed onto tables to escape the water. Kevin continued to call for help.

Volunteers from the RNLI’s FRT were deployed in Cumbria with crews heading to the aid of people in the Kendal, Cockermouth, and Carlisle areas. After being alerted to the stranded family near Kendal, a team of five FRT volunteers, all hailing from Welsh lifeboat stations, drove to the area in their flood rescue vehicle, hoping they could launch a rescue boat. But the conditions and terrain were working against them.

‘Other emergency services had struggled to launch around there because, where the water was shallow enough to launch a boat, it was still dangerously fast,’ explains FRT Member Elissa Thursfield, who is also on the Abersoch lifeboat crew. ‘That, together with the darkness and the water still rising, would have put us and our gear at risk. But while we were assessing the situation, a farmer passing in a tractor asked if he could be of help.’

With its powerful, big wheels, the tractor was able to make slow but steady progress through the water. So the farmer ferried Moelfre lifeboat Mechanic Vince Jones and Rhyl Crew Member Martin Jones to the front door of the bungalow.

Moelfre RNLI Mechanic and FRT Member Vince Jones

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

Moelfre RNLI Mechanic and FRT Member Vince Jones

‘You could see the family were so relieved to see us entering the house,’ recalls Vince. ‘The pregnant woman and her partner were on the kitchen worktop and the water was about 3 inches from the top of it. The grandmother and the children were on the top bunk bed with a bag of Christmas presents.’

While Vince and Martin reassured the family, the farmer drove clear of the waters to collect Elissa and Beaumaris Crew Member Guy Williams, who had inflated a rescue sled. They tied the sled – which works like a large, floating stretcher – to the back of the tractor and headed towards the bungalow.

Vince and Martin were waiting at the front door, where they helped 3-year-old Jacob and his grandmother onto the sled. ‘Speed was of the essence,’ says Vince. ‘The water level inside rose a foot or so in the time we were there, so it was a really challenging situation for the team – but this is what we go through extensive training for.’

While the pair were ferried to safety, the team prepared Jacob’s older brother Sebastian and Samara for rescue – and they too were ferried to safety. ‘The boys had initially been terrified but when we told them they were getting a ride on a tractor they seemed to be quite excited,’ recalls Elissa, who helped Kevin and Haydn to safety while the rest of the team retrieved the remaining occupants in the bungalow: Kevin and Mary’s two dogs.

With all six people and the pets now rescued from the bungalow, they were taken to a pub nearby where they were soon warm and dry. With the casualties safe, the FRT members had time to think about the rescue. ‘During the job you don’t think about it but afterwards, when you reflect on the conditions, it was incredible,’ says Elissa. ‘I can’t believe I was part of that.’

‘Awesome human beings’

Flood Rescue Team Members Elissa and Guy are reunited with Jacob and Sebastian

Photo: RNLI/Danielle Rush

Flood Rescue Team Members Elissa and Guy are reunited with Jacob and Sebastian

‘When we heard the RNLI team had managed to get them out safely we were so relieved,’ says Alan, Sebastian and Jacob’s dad. ‘It’s amazing that a team of volunteers are willing to drop everything to come and help.’

The boys’ mum Helen added: ‘In order to get my terrified children onto the rescue sled the volunteers promised the boys their helmets.’ True to their word, the team headed to the Holmes’s household in Lytham St Annes on 23 December to deliver the helmets to the boys – who are pictured with rescuers Elissa and Guy.

‘I am indebted to the RNLI – not only for putting their lives at risk to rescue my family,’ adds Helen, ‘but for being awesome human beings.’

Unpredictable events like this feature in Saving Lives at Sea, a 12-part BBC series on the RNLI’s lifesaving work. Get more stories from the series here.