A man walking his dog thought nothing of his own safety when he jumped into freezing water to rescue a drowning woman.
Gas engineer Stephen Hill, 36, was out walking his pet with a friend along Mermaid Quay on Cardiff Bay, Wales, at around 10pm on Sunday when he heard a “hell of a splash” and a woman’s scream.
Hill, from Whitchurch, sprung immediately into action, using his penknife to free up a lifebuoy and dropped it down to the woman.
However, she began panicking and started swimming further out and “seemed to lose all energy”.
While another passer-by called 999, Hill put the lifebuoy over himself then gave the rope to some bystanders before jumping in to the water himself because he realised “someone had to do it otherwise they would have been recovering a body”.
He said: “The temperature hits you like a tonne of bricks.
"I swam out to her, put both of my arms through her arms, kicked my legs and swam back to the embankment.”
With no strength to pull the woman out of the water, Hill positioned himself partly on the sloping stone embankment and partly in the water while holding onto the woman's right arm and keeping her head above water.
The woman, who was in her 40s, went "in and out" of talking to Hill, at one point telling him her name and that she didn't know how she'd ended up in the water.
The Penarth lifeboat team were delayed by the Cardiff Bay Barrage, meaning Hill was holding onto the woman for around 30 minutes – despite his arms aching.
‘I wasn’t going to watch someone die’
He said: “I was worried I wasn't going to be able to hold her much longer. It was taking all my strength.”
Firefighters and police officers helped Hill up the embankment and used a body splint stretcher and rescue lines to pull the woman out of the water.
She was taken to hospital and discharged the next day.
Recalling the experience, Hill said: “I'm not a very strong swimmer but that wasn't on my mind.
“The only thing on my mind was that I wasn't going to watch someone die tonight.”
The dangers of cold water
Falling into cold water – especially during the winter months – can revise a cold shock response in your body.
The sudden change in temperature provokes the body to react and can cause someone to take a sudden gasp for air before they begin breathing rapidly in panic.
This can cause the person to immediately inhale water into the lungs, immediately increasing the risk of drowning.
The lungs become overwhelmed by just 1.5 litres of water – which can easily be taken in while gasping for air.
Other reactions including the shrinking of blood vessels, which makes it harder for blood to flow, while the heart rate increases.
This combination leads to an increase in blood pressure and the heart has to suddenly work much harder – which can lead to cardiac arrest.
Some people may also experience the “diving response” – the holding of breath and abnormal heart rhythms that could lead to sudden death – brought on by the immersion of the face in cold water.
The RNLI advise people to try and relax and float on your back if you fall into cold water, controlling you breathing as your body deals with the initial cold shock response.
First aid for those who have fallen in cold water includes giving them shelter, removing wet clothing and replacing with dry clothes and giving them warm food and drink.