Anna Leask is senior police reporter for the New Zealand Herald.

Lifesaving heroes: Child's plea inspired heroic act

Each day this week the Herald is profiling people who, through brave acts or extraordinary efforts, have saved a stranger from death or danger. These are people who have put their lives on the line for another or risked their safety to help someone else. Today’s lifesaver is Quinn O’Connell from Tauranga.
Quinn O'Connell with his three daughters Summer, Skye and India. Photo / Quinn O'Connell
Quinn O'Connell with his three daughters Summer, Skye and India. Photo / Quinn O'Connell

The little girl on the beach was wrapped in a towel. She looked up at Quinn O'Connell, her eyes wide with terror, and said "dad's out there". With three kids of his own waiting at home, he knew he couldn't leave another dad in danger.

Moments before Mr O'Connell had been enjoying a beer at a Mt Maunganui bar before walking back along the beach to a family reunion. As he wandered along the sand he noticed a group of people looking out at the water.

"I saw another woman running out of the corner of my eye, followed by screaming," he said.

"I just ran. I didn't think about anything else other than to see if I could help. As I got closer I saw this little girl in a towel, she looked just like my daughter ... she looked at me with these eyes, I've never seen that much emotion, she said 'please help, dad's out there'. That really kicked it home."

Mr O'Connell could see a boogie boarder making his way to two people in the surf. He stripped to his boxers, grabbed a boogie board from a boy coming out of the water and started to paddle out.

When he got there the other boarder had reached the woman and a young girl and had them safe, but they were panicking.

"I said just calm down, save your energy, you're safe. Then the woman looked at me and said 'you've got to go out there, my husband is out there'," Mr O'Connell, a father of three, recalled. He couldn't see anyone else but he started to paddle further out. The surf was "soupy and nasty" and sea lettuce made it hard to stay on the board.

"I kept slipping ... and then I saw a head bobbing. He was about 30m away - and that's a long way to paddle. I thought 'I can't get there on this board in these conditions'.

"I started to paddle. I was screaming to him 'I'm coming, stay strong, hold on'. I don't know what it was, whether it was the current or fate but all of a sudden I was there."

Mr O'Connell grabbed hold of the man's singlet, jammed the boogie board under him and realised he was barely conscious.

"He was knocking on heaven's door, his eyes were rolled back, he was nearly gone," he said.

"I just held on to him. I started talking to him, telling him that his daughter was on the beach, that his family needed him."

The man came around and managed to tell Mr O'Connell that his name was George. They floated together, drifting further from shore, for about 45 minutes.

"I wasn't scared or cold or anything out there, I think the adrenalin kept me up.

"I just wasn't going to let him go.

"I thought a couple of times whether it would be worth trying to swim or paddle in but there was no way I could drag us both."

Mr O'Connell thought he heard a boat but nothing arrived. Ten minutes later the surf lifesavers pulled up in their boat.

They had been unable to get out because of the sea lettuce, but finally managed to smash through and get to the men.

The man Mr O'Connell saved was George Bristow, a father of four. He called Mr O'Connell a few weeks after the incident and met his lifesaver.

"It was a good outcome out of a bad situation," said Mr O'Connell.

He was reluctant to use the word hero when talking about his effort, which was recognised with a District Commanders Certificate of Appreciation from police.

"If being a hero is helping someone who's in a near- death situation, then yes, maybe I am one. But as anyone else who has been in this situation knows, you don't just walk by ...

"I'd do it again in a heartbeat."

The series

Monday: Hamilton's Red Watch fire crew
Wednesday: Surfer who pulled drowning teen from rip.
Thursday: Life on the line to bring boaties to safety
Friday: Cop puts himself in the line of fire

- NZ Herald

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