Two schoolgirls who were swept off a sea wall by a rogue wave and survived by clinging to a space hopper today heaped praise on their rescuers.
Hannah Woolacott, 16, and Charlotte Wright, 15, thought they were going to drown when they were dragged 60ft out to sea by strong currents.
But they were saved when a group of men spotted the danger and threw the toy – that resembles a large, heavy rubber balloon with handles – to keep them afloat.
The pair, who were swept from a sea wall in Dawlish, Devon, grabbed the hopper and used it to keep them afloat until they reached a life buoy.
Both, despite being good swimmers, would have drowned if it wasn’t for the quick thinking of their rescuers and the lifeboat crew which plucked them from the sea.
Charlotte, of Exeter, said: ”We were walking along the seawall to meet some friends but before we knew it the waves knocked us over and threw us into the water.
”Everywhere was black and cold. We were out more than 20 metres and in the water for about 30 minutes and the waves were dragging me down.
”I was also afraid we would be bashed against the wall. My shoulder bag was dragging me under, so I let go of it. I was struggling to breathe – I thought that was it.
”Then Hannah kept saying ‘Hold on, hold on, it’s going to be okay’ but despite her words of encouragement I thought I was going to die.
”I was so scared. I couldn’t breath – I didn’t think I was ever going to get out.”
The girls were swept off a sea wall and dragged out to sea at about 6.30pm on Saturday.
Bricklayer Matthew Gribble, 24, and his friends heard the girls screaming for help and grabbed a life buoy to throw to them.
Unable to reach the girls, Matthew was able to throw a space hopper to the girls who managed to grab hold of it.
After the rescue, Charlotte spent the night in intensive care being treated for secondary drowning.
She said: ”Hannah was so brilliant, so brave, and she was trying to look after me and shouting that I would be all right.
”I grabbed the space hopper – anything to keep myself afloat. I remember it was blue and I heard mumbling and saw lots of people shouting from the seawall.
”As I floated towards a torpedo aid Hannah got it to me to keep me afloat. She was lifting my head from the back to keep me above the water.
”The men in the lifeboat got hold of us and pulled us in. I was blue with cold and they gave me oxygen.
”I can’t thank the rescuers enough. The boys on the wall threw the space hopper, shouting at us to hold on. They were fantastic.
”And the lifeboatmen were great. Without them we would not be here to tell our story.”
Hannah, also from Exeter, was treated for cuts and bruises and hypothermia and said her training in lifesaving techniques helped keep them alive.
She said: ”As luck would have it I’m a strong swimmer. I kept shouting at Charlotte – I couldn’t leave her.
”I rested her head on my arm because she wasn’t breathing I kept holding on to her and was shouting for help.
”She kept going under the water and into unconsciousness. I want to say a big thank you to everyone involved. Without them we would not have survived.”
An RNLI spokesman added: ”A few more minutes and the girls would have drowned. Any longer and we would have been pulling out bodies.”