Father saves girl, 3, swept through storm drain pipe
The Guardian, Tuesday September 9 2008
A three-year-old girl sucked into a hidden storm drain as she played in a park was forced for 70 metres through an underground concrete pipe before her father leapt into a swollen river to save her.
The storm drain was so narrow that Leona Baxter's face, arms and legs were scraped raw. Squashed and drowning, she smashed into a rock in the tunnel, and was then spat into the river Wear, at Chester-le-Street, County Durham, along with her pet mastiff Brophy.
Emergency services last night praised the girl's father Mark Baxter, a 34-year-old RAF sergeant, for "incredibly quick thinking" which saved her life on Sunday evening. After scrabbling vainly at the drain's displaced metal cover, he ran to the river and grabbed the child just as currents were about to carry her away. The dog did not survive.
"The kids had their wellies on and were really enjoying splashing around," he said yesterday, as fire crews warned of more rain tomorrow across most of the country.
He and his wife Beverley, a hotel receptionist at Scotch Corner on the A1, had offered Leona, her six-year-old sister Kia and Brophy a run-around after visiting the children's great-grandparents at Chester-le-Street.
"I threw a stick for the dog and then I heard Bev shout "Leona." I looked around for her and saw Leona wasn't there. There was nothing," he said. "That's when I noticed there was a swirling whirlpool effect.
"I stuck my arm in but I couldn't feel anything. Then I heard Bev cry out and looked up to see the dog being sucked down the same hole."
While a passerby dialed 999, Baxter thought: it's a storm drain of some kind and if it's going to spill out somewhere it would be in the river. He ran to the Wear and saw what looked like the child's coat being dragged away.
"I realised she was in it. She was floating face down in the river," he said. "I leapt over the side and grabbed her. The water was about up to my shoulder height. She was completely still and wasn't breathing."
He managed to hand the child to his wife who started first aid and Leona coughed, cried and was violently sick, spewing out water. Exhausted and with his boots waterlogged, Baxter clung on to the riverbank for the three minutes it took for a fire crew, paramedics and police to arrive.
Firefighter Steve Hagar, who was one of the first on the scene, said: "If there'd been a grate on the other end of the pipe or the girl had been a bit bigger she would have been stuck underground. Both she and her dad are lucky to be alive."
Safety officers immediately checked other drains in Riverside Park.
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