True Crime

We took this pic… then she vanished

A happy family stroll at the beach quickly turned into a nightmare when Ella disappeared

Peter Waterhouse, 40, Craigieburn, Vic

Snapping a photo of my kids on my phone camera, I had to laugh. Sophie, six, had turned away, while Daniel, seven, and Ella, four, were both pulling funny faces. Typical.

The four of us were out for a walk along the pier in Point Lonsdale, Vic. A huge wooden structure, it stretches right out into the ocean. It was a bleak and windy day so not many people were out and about but I did spot four fishermen trying their luck in the swirling sea. Directly below us huge waves crashed against the shore.

I’d bundled up the kids to give my wife Joanne, 36, a break back at our holiday unit.

Sophie, Daniel and Ella.

We visit the area a couple of times a year and a walk along the pier is always a highlight for me. Wanting to capture the moment, I lined up the kids to take that photo. I hadn’t banked on it being so hard!

‘I can’t see because of the sun,’ laughed Sophie.

‘Shuffle along so you aren’t in the glare. I’ll move this way,’ I replied.

Sophie, Ella and Daniel on the pier just before the accident.

Stepping to the left, I held up my phone to set up the snap.

Through the screen I suddenly saw Ella stumble. And that’s when something shocking happened. She slipped through the bottom pier rails. In less than a second she’d disappeared into the water below.

Without even thinking about it, I bolted to the space where she’d last been, put my hand on the top rail and leapt into the swirling waves.

As I fell through the air, fear filled my mind. What if Ella had hit her head on the way down? Was she being swept away?

With an almighty splash I landed in the water. Surfacing, I was relieved to see my little girl next to me. Although she can’t swim, she was managing to bob about with her head above water.

‘Daddy, I fell in.’ she said. ‘Yes I know. Hold on to me,’ I said, scooping her up in my right arm.

Once I knew my girl was secure, I became aware of the incredibly strong current pushing and pulling us as the powerful tide did its work. We were being pulled out to sea!

About 10 metres away I could see a set of wooden steps running down from the pier to a ledge above the water. Hanging off the ledge was a metal ladder that went into the water. Knowing it was our only way out, I furiously began to swim towards it. It wasn’t far but I couldn’t seem to get any closer and I was tiring quickly.

That afternoon I’d put on four layers – including a fleece and raincoat – now I could feel those clothes pulling me under. With Ella still in my right arm, I grabbed onto one of the pier’s pylons to catch my breath. Noticing the water surging up and down, I realised we couldn’t stay still for long before we’d be dragged down.

Above us on the pier, I could hear Daniel and Sophie crying out. Please don’t jump in after us, I prayed.

Continuing towards the ladder, I wasn’t sure if I’d have the strength to make it. The force of the water was astounding.

That’s when I saw the faces of the fishermen standing on the ledge peering down at me. Jumping into action, three of them formed a human chain, holding on to each other. One was hanging off the metal ladder, up to his waist in water, holding out his hand towards us.

Using my last bit of energy, I thrust Ella towards the fisherman.

‘Have you got her?’ I cried.

‘Yes, yes,’ he said, pulling her into his arms.

Passing her back to his mates, the man then grabbed me and pulled me onto the ladder.

‘Sophie, Daniel, are you there?’ I shouted out as I climbed up.

Seeing them both at the top of the pier with tears running down their faces, I felt such relief.

One of the men took off his jacket and wrapped Ella in it. She was stunned but unhurt.

When I knew all three kids were okay, I began shaking furiously from the shock and adrenaline. The enormity of what had happened started to dawn on me. What if those men hadn’t been there?

Ella safe in the arms of her rescuer, Ergen.

‘Thank you so much. You blokes are a godsend. I’m so pleased you were fishing here today,’ I said to them.

They said they only came to the pier on Monday afternoon because that’s their day off from the burger joint where they worked.

Calling Joanne to bring towels and dry clothes, I didn’t tell her how close we had come to drowning just minutes earlier.

Once she arrived, we changed Ella out of her wet clothes and then the tears came.

‘Do I deserve a sticker for being so brave?’ she wept.

Thanking the men again, we got into the car and went back to the unit for a hot bath. Feeling more human, I told Joanne about our close shave.

‘I could have lost both of you’ she cried.

A couple of days later we tracked down the man who’d pulled Ella out. Ergen Acar owns Burgerinc in Newtown, Geelong, so we popped in for lunch. Joanne and I gave him a card and flowers, while Ella handed him a picture she’d drawn. He embraced little Ella, who was delighted to meet her rescuer again.

Originally from Turkey, Ergen has only broken English, but we chatted enough for me to know he’s a gentle and genuine man. With four kids of his own, he followed his instinct to save us.

‘You are the hero, I just helped,’ he said when I thanked him again. I have to disagree. Our humble hero saved our lives that day and for that I’ll be eternally grateful.

Joanne with Ella, Daniel and me with Sophie.

Originally published in that’s life! Issue 42 – October 22, 2015

Surviving at Sea

– If you get caught in a current, follow these tips.

– Keep calm. If you’re in a rip off a beach, swim parallel to the beach as this will help you escape. If you can’t, try to float or calmly tread water.

– A rip current’s strength will eventually weaken offshore. When it does, swim away from the rip current towards shore.

– Draw attention to yourself: face the shore, wave your arms and yell for help.

Related stories