A HEARTBROKEN father told today how he battled to save his young daughter from drowning in the sea off the north coast.
Alistair Cousins wept as he described the moments the little girl disappeared when she was caught up in a rip tide at Portballintrae, Co Antrim.
He told a Belfast inquest: "It was pure panic. I did not even have a plan. It was just get her out. There was no thinking about 'A, B or C' or that I will grab her and get to the rocks, it was just get her out. Once we got in there the current took us out. The Coastguard said it was a rip tide."
Despite the frantic rescue efforts, Bethany Cousins, 11, from Glenwood Park in Lurgan, Co Armagh, died several hours later at the Causeway Hospital in Coleraine.
She had been body boarding at Runkerry Beach with her younger brother on the first day of their summer holiday when the tragedy struck on July 15 last year.
Mr Cousins, a father-of-three, had been watching from the shore when he saw Bethany had got into difficulty.
He told the court he jumped into the icy Atlantic water without hesitation and struggled against breaking waves and a strong undercurrent to rescue his only daughter.
After being battered by a third wave he momentarily lost his grip on the little girl. Seconds later, when he pulled her to the surface Bethany was unresponsive.
He said: "I felt that I could not go on - I was completely shattered - but something inside me said keep going. I was for giving up but when I was under the water I seen a hand, grabbed her hand and made my way to the surface. The wave tumbled us. When we came up her head was down and I said 'don't you even think about it'. I have no idea how I got out of that current."
Passers-by, who had watched in horror, dragged an exhausted Mr Cousins, clutching the unconscious child, to the beach.
Caravan owner Colin Taylor administered CPR after receiving instructions over the phone.
The Cousins family were regular visitors to the north coast and had rented a cottage in Portballintrae for the week. They had been to the same beach the previous year and were unaware the stretch of water had already claimed the lives of a number of others.
"If we had thought for one second there was any danger on that beach the children would not have been on it," Mr Cousins added.
In an emotional tribute Ruth Cousins said her daughter was a fantastic child.
"She could have been top of the class at her next school. She was clever and to me, she was the best. She was into sport and fashion and was a member of the GB (Girls Brigade)," she said.
Mrs Cousins, a civil servant, also paid tribute to those who had helped at the scene.
"Everyone on that beach on that day was amazing. I would like to thank them all. No one could have tried harder," she said while choking back tears," she said.
Deputy State pathologist Dr Alistair Bentley determined the cause of death as features consistent with drowning. Although Bethany was only under water for a short time it is thought she inhaled a rush of cold water which triggered a cardiac arrest.
Danger signs have since been erected at Runkerry beach.
However, Senior Coroner John Leckey, who described the evidence given in court as very moving, said more must be done.
"I hope that no one else will suffer the same tragedy. Questions remain about whether the signage that has been put up since is fit for purpose," Mr Leckey said.
The Coroner is to write to Moyle District Council which has responsibility for Runkerry Beach and the relevant government minister asking for urgent action to be taken to address the issue of signage on all beaches on the north coast.
"People pay much more attention if they see a red flag," he added.