Thursday 17 August 2017

Mystery hero revealed: Student describes how it took four attempts to save life of drowning woman trapped in car

'What I saw unfolding before me was the scariest thing I have seen in my life'

Rescue hero Andrew Johnston pictured when he returned to the scene where he rescued a woman trapped in a submerged car. (North West Newspix)
Rescue hero Andrew Johnston pictured when he returned to the scene where he rescued a woman trapped in a submerged car. (North West Newspix)
Philip McKinlay
Loreta McKinlay

Stephen Maguire

A student has told how it took him four attempts to save the life of a drowning woman who became trapped in her car after it plunged into a river.

Heroic Andrew Johnston was visiting Co Donegal for the weekend when the dramatic events unfolded.

Having sold his tickets to the Longitude Music Festival, Andrew, 21, surprised girlfriend Rhiannon Donaldson with a weekend in the seaside resort of Buncrana.

But while driving to the town on the Inishowen Peninsula, and after passing through Porthall just outside Lifford, Andrew noticed a commotion on the road ahead at the Suile Bridge.

He said he initially thought it was a car crash but never thought he would end up saving the lives of two people just moments later.

It was only later he would discover how a car with an elderly couple had plunged into the Suile Burn, which flows into the River Foyle, just before 6.30pm on Saturday evening.

The couple’s car is lifted from the Swilly Burn river near Lifford, Co Donegal. Photo: North West News
The couple’s car is lifted from the Swilly Burn river near Lifford, Co Donegal. Photo: North West News

"I thought it was a crash but then I noticed this guy coming running towards me. He asked me if I could swim and brought me to the edge of the river," Andrew told Independent.ie.

"What I saw unfolding before me was the scariest thing I have seen in my life.

Philip McKinlay
Philip McKinlay

"I saw the wreckage of a car and a man, whose face was covered in blood, was standing on the top of an upturned car.

"I'm not a gold medal swimmer but I got out to him and asked him if there was anybody else in the car.

Loreta McKinlay
Loreta McKinlay

"He told me his wife was in the car. To be honest, it wasn't the answer I wanted to hear but I knew I had to do something."

For the next two minutes, the second year engineering student at the University of Ulster in Jordanstown, tried on four different occasions to reach Mrs Loreta McKinlay.

He described how, on the first occasion, he simply didn't take enough breath and had to return to the surface.

On the second attempt, Andrew, from Lurgan in Co Armagh, reached into the front passenger seat of the car but said there was nobody there.

He resurfaced and asked Mr McKinlay where exactly his wife was in the car. He pointed to the rear passenger side where he had last seen his wife before the couple hit the water.

Andrew, assisted by Mr McKinlay, then jumped back into the water and managed to pull open the rear passenger door.

They initially had to discard various pieces of clothing and bags in the back of the car before hauling Mrs McKinlay onto the top of the car.

Andrew added; "She was unconscious... I'd never seen anything like it in my life. It was so scary."

Mr McKinlay then attempted to perform CPR on his wife.

Others from the riverbank had managed to get a garden hose from a passing motorist and threw it to the rescuers to use as a makeshift life-ring.

They managed to bring Mrs McKinlay to the riverbank but couldn't get her to dry land as the banking was too steep.

A number of passers-by then managed to lift the stricken woman up onto the edge of the river.

Andrew explained how a paramedic spoke to those at Mrs McKinlay's side as they travelled to the scene.

When the rescue services including fire tenders, Gardai and medical personnel as well as the Rescue 118 helicopter arrived at the scene, Andrew said he went to change his clothing.

"I was absolutely soaking from the river and I went to change my clothes. When I came back they had put up a cordon and I could not get past it again.

"At that stage I thought I had done all I could and I drove on with my girlfriend," he said.

Andrew went to stay at the Harbour Inn in Buncrana on Saturday night but kept an eye on social media to find out any news on Mr and Mrs McKinlay.

It was only today that he realised that reports of the potentially tragic event were describing him as the mystery hero.

"I don't want to describe myself as a hero. I just wanted to find out how the couple were. I'm hoping they will be okay.

"I don't want to think what could have happened. A lot of people helped out on the day and I was just one of them," he said.

In a lovely gesture to the reluctant hero, management at the Harbour Inn in Buncrana heard about Andrew's amazing bravery and gave himself and his girlfriend a free two-night stay to use in future.

"I should have been at Longitude but sold my tickets and decided to come to Donegal. I even got off my part-time job a little early so I shouldn't really have been passing by that river. Life works in mysterious ways," added Andrew.

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