Britain’s Bravest

Dermot Murnaghan presents more accounts of life-threatening emergencies and daring rescues. Combining testimonies from those involved with reconstructions and genuine footage, each edition tells the stories behind Britain’s most extraordinary acts of bravery. This week’s instalment features a yacht caught in a storm off the coast of Scotland; and a digger driver who became trapped underwater when his machine slipped into a lake.

In June 2006, the Vijara yacht was participating in the Round-Britain race – a 2,000-mile course for sailing enthusiasts. The third leg of this race takes yachts around the Outer Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland, where rocky outcrops and sandbars make for treacherous conditions. Huib Swets, the Dutch skipper of the Vijara, was negotiating this stretch of water with his co-skipper when a massive storm struck. After battling against the elements for some time, Huib decided to shorten sail and take a break below deck.

Huib was awoken by an almighty crash. His yacht had ‘pitchpoled’ – risen with a huge wave, flipped over 180 degrees and crashed back into the water. “It was chaos, absolute chaos,” recalls Huib. Blood was pouring from a gash on his head, while his co-skipper had been knocked unconscious. Worse still, the hull of the yacht was breaking free of the frame. Huib made an emergency call and the RNLI crew at nearby Castlebay was scrambled.

When they received the call, Angus MacNeil, Donald MacLeod and the rest of the RNLI crew knew that they had to act quickly. As they set out towards the Vijara, huge waves and high winds battered their ship, meaning that progress was frustratingly slow. “The longer it took to get to him, you could hear more urgency in his voice,” says Angus. The crew eventually made visual contact with the Vijara two hours after the call was made. “It was a very exciting moment,” recalls Huib.

However, before the rescuers could act to secure the yacht, their own boat was hit by a huge wave and capsized. Though it righted itself fairly quickly, precious moments were lost – and the Vijara was becoming ever more unstable. Unable to attach a tow rope to the yacht, Angus and Donald told Huib to use a small storm sail, then guided him on a safe course back to shore.

Thanks to the quick thinking and local knowledge of the RNLI volunteers, the Vijara managed to hold together long enough to take its two-man crew to safety. “We are very grateful to them,” says Huib. “We are connected for the rest of our lives.”

The next story this week takes place in Dorney Lake near Eton, where work is underway to build rowing facilities for the 2012 Olympics. Eddie Randtoul was edging towards the middle of the lake to excavate rubble when his 60-tonne digger suddenly slipped down the bank and overturned. Eddie was trapped in the cab, which quickly filled with water. “I knew I was going to die,” he recalls.

Nearby, schoolteacher Michael Righton was coaching the rowing team when one of his students alerted him to what had just happened. “It occurred to me… that whoever was in that digger was not coming out,” recalls Michael. He swam out to the vehicle and attemped to break the glass with his feet. Eventually, using a hammer thrown to him by a passing member of the public, he managed to smash the glass and drag Eddie from the cab.

By this stage, Eddie had been underwater for eight minutes and was unconscious. “I thought, ‘this guy’s dead’,” says Michael. Struggling to keep Eddie’s head above water, Michael performed CPR and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, before dragging his charge to the shore. Incredibly, Eddie survived the ordeal – partly thanks to the extremely cold water that slowed down his heart beat, but mainly down to the bravery of one man. “He’s a miracle to me,” says Eddie of his saviour.

Also featured this week is the story of an offduty fireman trapped inside a burning house; and that of a cyclist stuck at the bottom of a ravine.

Dermot Murnaghan presents more accounts of
life-threatening emergencies and daring rescues.
Combining testimonies from those involved with
reconstructions and genuine footage, each edition
tells the stories behind Britain’s most extraordinary
acts of bravery. This week’s edition features a
Royal Navy helicopter crew that came to the aid of
a stricken Italian tanker, a mountain-rescue team
that fought to save a climber who was bleeding to
death; and a young boy who was carried off by a
raging river.
“The difference between life and death is often
luck, sometimes training and – just occasionally –
outright bravery,” says Dermot Murnaghan. “This
series celebrates everyday heroes who put their
lives on the line.” Two of the heroes featured this
week are Aircrewman Jay O’Donnell and Captain
Damien ‘Daisy’ May, members of a Royal Navy
helicopter rescue crew.
On 18th January 2007, the Italian container ship
MSC Napoli was en route to Portugal when it ran
into a severe storm in the English Channel. The
ship’s hull cracked and its engine room flooded,
forcing the captain to abandon ship 50 miles off
the coast of Lizard Point, Cornwall. Having sent
out a distress call, the crew of 26 disembarked
into the small lifeboat and waited in 40ft swells to
be rescued.
Two rescue helicopters were scrambled from
RNAS Culdrose and sent to help the stricken
seamen. When flight 194 arrived on the scene, with
Jay O’Donnell and Damien May onboard, flight
193 had already tried in vain to lower a winchman to
the lifeboat. They had managed to get a couple of
high lines to the boat – special wires thrown down
to a ship to steady a rescue attempt – but they had
both snapped. At this point, the waves were so big
and the winds so strong that the helicopters had to
keep climbing and descending to avoid being
dragged into the sea.
Experienced winchman Jay eventually managed
to lower himself onto the boat to begin a hazardous
rescue attempt. When he got into the cabin, he
found the Napoli crew in a very bad way – everyone
onboard had become sick owing to the choppy
waters, and the smell was horrendous. The rescue
was also made more difficult by the fact that few of
the Italian seaman could speak English.
After 12 of the men had been lifted to safety, the
high line snapped once more, meaning that Jay
had nothing to steady him as he battled to rescue
the remaining 14. All the while, pilot Damien had to
keep the helicopter directly above the stricken
vessel. Then, disaster struck as the winch wire got
caught on part of the lifeboat. If this wire were to
snap, the remaining men – including Jay –would
be left with no way to reach the helicopter. Jay
managed to save the day with a daring
manoeuvre that saw him climb on top of the craft
to unhook the wire.
By the time flight 194 flew back to base and
flight 193 took over, Jay had been rescuing people
for several hours and was exhausted – but his
trials were not yet over. One of the last of the
Napoli’s crew to be rescued fell into the sea,
meaning that Jay had to risk his life once more to
drag him back aboard. But, after a number of near
disasters, the last man was eventually winched to
safety and flight 193 could return to base –with
just enough fuel left to make the journey.
Elsewhere this week, there is the story of a
mountain-rescue paramedic who came to the aid
of a horrifically injured man trapped in a ravine; that
of a young boy who was swept away by a raging
river; and the miraculous tale of a married couple
who survived the Boxing Day tsunami.

britain’s bravest(1/10)

Dermot Murnaghan presents this brand new tenpart series exploring real-life emergencies, rescues and acts of bravery. The programme mixes powerful testimonies from the people involved with dramatic reconstructions. Tonight’s episode focuses on an air ambulance crew who performed emergency surgery on a woman who was critically injured in a car crash.

Britain’s Bravest relates the experiences of people who have survived devastating accidents and emergencies. The series features daring rescues from caves, mountains, seas, fires and traffic accidents, with first-hand accounts from the people involved and from emergency services including the fire brigade, air ambulance, police, RAF, navy, RNLI and coastguard.

Tonight’s opening instalment looks back at a terrible collision on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, 2004. Gill Dawson was driving down a B-road in the town of Rothwell, Northamptonshire, when a car coming towards her lost control and veered into her path. The vehicle – driven by a 19-year-old man who had only just passed his test – collided with Gill’s car and sent her crashing into a tree.

The local fire brigade rushed to the scene, but lacked the proper equipment to cut Gill out of the car. An ambulance crew arrived and managed to give her oxygen and insert an IV line, but it looked highly unlikely that she could be saved.

Within 11 minutes of the crash, a Warwickshire and Northamptonshire Air Ambulance had reached the site. The helicopter crew comprised Dr Anthony Bleetman, a hospital consultant and air ambulance volunteer; paramedic Brian Dwyer; and pilot Charlie Pratt. They landed the helicopter in a field close to the crash and quickly assessed the situation. Gill’s car was virtually wrapped around the tree and she was clearly seriously injured; unconscious and struggling to breathe, she was bleeding profusely from a head wound and her legs were trapped in the wreckage.

The air ambulance team realised that Gill would need immediate treatment if she was to survive, so Brian and Anthony crawled through the smashed rear window of the car to anaesthetise her and ventilate her artificially. Tony cut open her chest to relieve pressure and re-inflate her collapsed lung – a procedure normally only performed in hospital.

As the paramedics worked on Gill, the fire brigade struggled to peel back the roof of the car. The firefighters lacked the hammer they needed to bash the roof free, so Brian resorted to hitting the roof with an oxygen tank. This provided enough force to loosen the top of the car. The paramedics worked for another hour and a half to keep Gill alive until the firefighters finally freed her legs from the car.

She was carried to the helicopter and rushed to Heartlands Hospital in Birmingham. During the flight, Gill went into cardiac arrest and had to be resuscitated twice.

Once at hospital, Gill was found to have a ruptured spleen, a broken jaw and a fractured skull, as well as extensive damage to her right leg. She was in a coma for a week, but thanks to Anthony and Brian’s actions in the field, doctors were optimistic that she would recover. They were eventually forced to amputate her right leg, but after many months of recuperation, she was finally discharged. With the help of an artificial leg and crutches, Gill has been able to return to her job as an IT analyst part-time.

For their remarkable work at the scene of the crash, Anthony and Brian were awarded a Vodafone National Life Saver Award in 2006 and were invited to a reception at Number 10, where they were personally congratulated by Tony Blair. Tonight’s episode also looks at the explosion at the Stockline plastics factory in Glasgow in 2004, and a shocking rally car crash.

britain’s bravest

Dermot Murnaghan presents this brand new tenpart series exploring some incredible accounts of real-life emergencies, rescues and acts of bravery. Each edition of Britain’s Bravest focuses on three remarkable stories of heroism, from daring rescues by fire and ambulance crews to individual feats of courage by members of the public. The programmes mix powerful testimonies from the people involved with dramatic reconstructions.

Stories featured in the series include the actions of PC Adrian Smith, who risked his life to avert a car crash in the Birkenhead tunnel in 2006. Smith was on duty in his patrol car when he noticed an out-of-control vehicle heading in the opposite direction. The car’s driver had passed out on top of the passenger and there was no one controlling the vehicle. Thinking fast, Smith performed a handbrake turn, caught up with the stricken car and managed to push it into the tunnel wall and bring it to a halt.

Another episode focuses on the exploits of tanker driver Paul Cooke at the Buncefield oil refinery fire in 2005. Cooke was at the depot in Hemel Hempstead loading his truck with aviation fuel when he alerted the emergency services to a leak. The refinery was evacuated just as the fuel erupted in a huge fireball, but Cooke bravely returned to the scene to rescue fellow driver Paul Reed, who was trapped under his own tanker.

Other stories include the exceptional actions of volunteers in the Warwickshire and Northamptonshire Air Ambulance Service, who performed surgery on a woman trapped in her car following an accident; and the incredible rescue of two jet skiers by the RAF during the floods in Gloucester this year.

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