Lifesaver describes drowning tragedy
Cara-Lee Scheun and Vera Schoeman, Die Burger
Port Elizabeth - One of the lifesavers who tried to rescue 21 people who were swept away by a current at Bluewater Bay on Sunday, has described the incident as "incredibly traumatic".
Seventeen of them were members of the same rugby club. By late on Sunday night, one of the club members had been confirmed dead and five teammates were still missing, plunging the Port Elizabeth rugby community into mourning.
Brendon Helm, one of the lifesavers who helped to bring 15 people to safety at Bluewater Bay, described the incident on Sunday.
“It is something I will always remember. Only eight of us and 21 desperate people with wide open eyes begging to come out. Some of us took out two or three at a time and almost got into trouble ourselves.”
Fernando Cain of the beach's management office said it had not been necessary to take the 15 rescued people to hospital, but they were treated for shock.
Motherwell Rugby Football Club team manager Mcdisi Mazamba said they had taken the team to the beach on Sunday morning for a last practice session before a tournament in Cape Town over the Easter weekend.
After running up and down the dunes for several hours, some of the team members took showers while others went to cool down in the sea.
Helm said the group had only been in the water for about 10 minutes when all hell broke loose. “Everything was peaceful, the sea was calm and they were up to their chests in the water. The next moment we just saw arms and hands in the air as the current swept them away.”
Lifesavers regional chairperson Dave Bamber said seven lifesavers were at the beach instead of the usual four.
“Bluewater Bay is one of the city’s safest beaches. It was the first time in 43 years that we had a drowning here.”
Current usually not dangerous
Helm said they were well aware of the current but it wasn’t usually dangerous. “As long as you remain calm, keep your head above water and try not to swallow too much water, it will take you and leave you a bit further on.”
"But unfortunately it didn’t happen like that this time. It was hell.”
He said some of the drowned men had clung to their arms for dear life while others held on to the lifesavers’ kayaks.
Bluewater Bay lifesavers club leader Gareth Catherine said the lifesavers were all heroes. “They put their own lives at risk without a moment’s hesitation. I am very proud.”
Claude Kleynhans, who was at the beach, said the tragedy happened within seconds. “When I looked again, all the swimmers had been pulled in and two were floating already. I immediately dived in and could get one out at least.”
The beach was closed for the rest of the day and counsellors arrived to assist the players, their family members and lifesavers to deal with the trauma.
National Sea Rescue Institute station commander Ian Gray said three of their rescue boats had helped search for the missing players. The search will continue on Monday.
The names of the deceased and missing have not been made public.
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