Heroic Andrew Johnston was visiting Co Donegal for the weekend when the dramatic events unfolded
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 was visiting Co Donegal for the weekend when the dramatic events unfolded.
The 21-year-old sold his tickets to the Longitude Music Festival to surprise girlfriend Rhiannon Donaldson with a weekend in Buncrana.
But driving to the town on the Inishowen Peninsula, the young couple’s lives would change forever.
After passing through Porthall just outside Lifford, Andrew noticed a commotion on the road ahead.
He initially took it to be a car crash but never thought he’d end up saving two people’s lives just moments later.
It was only later he would discover how a car with an elderly couple had plunged into the Suile Burn, which flows into the River Foyle, just before 6.30pm on Saturday.
Andrew 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 – 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. To be honest, it wasn’t the answer I wanted to hear but I knew I had to do something.”
The University of Ulster student tried to reach Loretta McKinlay four times.
On the first occasion, he simply didn’t take enough breath and had to return to the surface.
On the second he reached into the front passenger seat but there was nobody there.
He resurfaced and asked Philip McKinlay exactly where his wife was in the vehicle.
The terrified husband pointed to the rear passenger side and Andrew, assisted by Mr McKinlay, jumped back in and pulled open the door.
The pair then hauled Mrs McKinlay on to the top of the car.
He added “She was unconscious. Her lips were blue – 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 tried to perform CPR on his wife while others on the riverbank got 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 bank but couldn’t get her to dry land as the ground was too steep.
A number of passers-by then lifted the stricken woman up to the river’s edge.
The emergency services were contacted but Andrew said it was at least 20 minutes before an ambulance arrived at the scene.
However, he revealed 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.
He said: “It was the longest 20 minutes of my life.
“I know Donegal is a large place and I’m not having a go at the ambulance service but I thought they were never going to arrive. I did genuinely fear the worst for the poor woman but the paramedics were doing their best to help us on the phone before the ambulance got there.”
When rescue services – including fire tenders, gardai and medical personnel as well as the Rescue 118 helicopter – did arrive, Andrew got a chance to check himself over. He added: “I was absolutely soaking from the river and I went to change my clothes.
“When I came back they had put up a cordon and I could not get past it again.
“At that stage I thought I had done all I could and I drove on with my girlfriend.”
The couple went to the Harbour Inn in Buncrana but kept an eye on social media to find out any news on Mr and Mrs McKinlay.
But it was only yesterday Andrew, from Lurgan in Co Armagh , realised that reports of the potentially tragic event were describing him as the mystery hero.
He said: “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 OK.
“I don’t want to think what could have happened.
“A lot of people helped out on the day and I was just one of them.”
In a lovely gesture to the reluctant hero, management at the Harbour Inn heard about Andrew’s bravery and gave himself and his girlfriend a free two-night stay to use in future.
He added: “I should have been at Longitude but sold my tickets and decided to come to Donegal.
“I even got off my part-time job a little early so I shouldn’t really have been passing by that river. Life works in mysterious ways.”