River hero made four attempts to save woman stuck in car
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 from Armagh was visiting Co. Donegal for the weekend when the dramatic events unfolded.
Having sold his tickets to the Longitude Music Festival in Dublin, 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 on Saturday evening, 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 and never thought he would end up saving the lives of two people just moments later.
It was only gradually that he realised that a car with an elderly couple inside, had plunged into the Suile Burn, which flows into the River Foyle, just before 6.30pm.
He said: ‘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. What I saw unfolding before me was the scariest thing I have seen in my life. 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. 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,
‘The longest 20 minutes of my life’
tried on four different occasions to reach Loreta McKinlay. The first time, he simply didn’t take enough breath and had to return to the surface. The second time, Andrew, from Lurgan in Co. Armagh, reached into the front passenger seat of the car – but there was nobody there.
He resurfaced and asked Philip McKinlay where exactly his wife was in the car.
The terrified husband pointed to the rear passenger side.
Andrew, assisted by Mr McKinlay, then jumped back into the water and managed to pull open the rear door.
They initially had to discard various items of clothing and bags in the back of the car before hauling Mrs McKinlay onto the top of the car. Andrew said: ‘She was unconscious. Her lips were blue and I’d never seen anything like it in my life. It was so scary. I was surprised there was any breathing at all.’
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.
The emergency services were contacted, but Andrew said it was at least 20 minutes before an ambulance manager arrived. However, he said that a paramedic did speak to those at Mrs McKinlay’s side as they changed her recovery position, and stayed with her as she battled to live.
‘It was the longest 20 minutes of my life,’ he said. When the rescue services, including the Rescue 118 helicopter, did arrive, Andrew went to change his clothing.
‘When I came back, they had put up a cordon and I could not get past it again.’
Andrew then went to stay at the Harbour Inn in Buncrana for the night. It was only on Sunday that he realised that news 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.’
Lifeline: Andrew with the garden hose used in the rescue
Trapped: Loreta McKinlay