A group of men were hailed heroes today after they saved two schoolgirls dragged out to sea in killer waves by throwing them – a SPACE HOPPER.
The two girls, aged 15 and 16, were swept 60ft out to sea after the freak wave knocked them off a sea wall and they became caught in strong currents.
But the friends were saved when rescuers threw the toy – which resembles a large, heavy rubber balloon with handles – into the sea.
They clung onto the space hopper for dear life which kept them afloat until they coastguard reached them off Dawlish in Devon.
The girls, from nearby Exeter, Devon, were washed off a sea wall as huge surf and gale-force winds lashed the coastal resort on Saturday.
They were struggling to stay above water and were in severe difficulty when a group of young men heard the girls screaming for help and ran to their aid.
One of the men threw a life buoy but could not get it close enough to save the girls.
But bricklayer Matthew Gribble, 24, found the weighty, discarded space hopper and threw that instead.
The girls were then able to use the inflatable to reach the life buoy before being rescued by lifeboat crews.
One of the rescuers, Leigh Larratt, 24, paid tribute to Matthew’s quick thinking which saved the girls’ lives.
He said: ”To be honest the only thing that saved them was when one of my other neighbours brought out a space hopper to throw to them.
”Matt, with a brilliant throw, managed to get it right next to the girls and they managed to get hold of the space hopper for a long enough time to be able to get hold of the life buoy.
”The space hopper saved the day. The sea was very rough and they both kept going under every few seconds.
”We thought they were going to die but the girl in the worst state was being held with her head above the water by the other.”
The teenagers were swept off the sea wall at around 6.30pm on Saturday and dragged 60ft out to sea by wind and strong currents.
The 15-year old spent the night in intensive care being treated for secondary drowning – a condition where water enters the lungs and impairs breathing.
The other girl, who was praised for the way she held her friend’s head above water, suffered cuts and bruises and hypothermia but was allowed home.
A spokesman for the RNLI, who batted ferocious waves to rescue the pair, said the girls were lucky to be alive.
He said: ”A few more minutes and the girls would have drowned. We would have been pulling out bodies. The seas were challenging to put it mildly, not helped by the full tide.
”We got the semi-conscious girl out but then a rope snagged the propeller of the lifeboat making things worse. It was one of the most hair-raising rescues I’ve done in 18 years with the RNLI.”
A spokesman for Brixham Coastguard added: ”These two girls are incredibly lucky. They owe their lives to the quick thinking of a group of boys on scene who threw them a buoy to keep them afloat.”