Essex Police officers courageously save drowning woman in freezing cold conditions

TSP Nigel McDermott with PC Ben Herbert at Clacton police station
TSP Nigel McDermott with PC Ben Herbert at Clacton police station -Credit:Si Barber

Two police officers who bravely ran into freezing cold water to save a woman who was drowning in pitch-black conditions have been recognised for their courageous actions. PC Nigel McDermott and PC Ben Herbert were due to start a night shift in Clacton when they received a call about a vulnerable woman who had told the mental health crisis team she was going to kill herself.

The woman had suggested she was going into the sea to drown herself so PC McDermott and PC Herbert conducted an area search of Holland-On-Sea beach. While walking along the seafront just before 10pm on October 6, 2022, PC McDermott saw a woman in the sea and tried to get her attention.

The woman did not respond to the officers and she was seen bobbing under the water and drifting further out to sea. At this stage, there was no confirmed ETA from the coastguard.

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PC Herbert said: "As we were walking along the beach, at the water’s edge, Nigel spots a face out in the water. Really, really difficult to see. About 10 metres out. Because of the time of year, the waves were really, really choppy and we just see her face. She keeps going underneath the water and it seems that she’s going further and further out into the sea.

"I couldn’t just stand there and watch someone drown. I took my tack vest off, took my body armour off, took my boots off, and then Nigel’s stood at the side with his torch and tried to light her up as best he could. I went into the sea, started swimming out to her.

"I got about halfway out to her and then completely lost sight of her again, she’d gone underneath the water. It was really difficult to see at this point. I managed to swim up to her, grabbed hold of her eventually, and then started swimming back with her, towards the beachfront where Nigel was."

PC Herbert swam out about 30 metres to the woman and took hold of her with one arm. He kept her afloat while swimming back to shore, keeping her head above the water. Due to the distance and depth of the water, as they got closer to the shore PC Herbert began to struggle. PC McDermott entered the sea up to his neck and assisted with the safe retrieval of both PC Herbert and the woman.

PC McDermott said: “It was pitch black, freezing cold. They were both drifting further and further out and I couldn’t see him so therefore I went in because there were two people now that we couldn’t see. I’ve taken my tac vest off, body armour off, entered the sea. I managed to keep the visual with my torch, and then eventually Ben managed to pass her over to me.”

The officers laid the woman on the sand in the recovery position and covered her with a police jacket to keep her warm. They immediately completed an assessment of her medical condition and engaged with her to keep her awake while they waited for an ambulance to arrive.

A short time later, an ambulance crew arrived and treated the woman for hyperthermia. She stated to paramedics that this was a genuine suicide attempt and that she wanted to end her life.

The woman was subsequently detained under Section 136 of the Mental Health Act and taken to hospital where she received medical help and support for her mental health.

PC Herbert added: "There’s been a lot of deaths in the sea where people have been swept out from the current and have drowned in the sea, so I was aware that there have been a lot of deaths in the sea, and that was in the back of my mind. For me, I wasn’t necessarily thinking about myself.

"I was thinking about this lady and the fact that she could be the next person to drown in the sea. I just couldn’t watch that happen. I joined the job to help people, and I feel like that’s what I did."

Essex Police Federation Chair Laura Heggie said: “What life saving heroes. This shows as always how officers run – or swim – towards danger when others might and do go in the other direction. Nigel and Ben showed exceptional bravery in very difficult circumstances.

"The sea was incredibly cold on a dark autumn night and just months before this, a man had tragically died in the same area of water, in strong currents. The officers’ selfless actions, knowing how dangerous the conditions were, are commendable.

"They displayed excellent communication skills, quick decision-making and teamwork to save this woman’s life."

The officers will attend the Essex Police Federation Bravery Awards on Thursday 16 May. At the event a winner will be announced who will travel to London for the National Police Federation Bravery Awards in July.