A lifeguard from Birmingham has been hailed a hero after helping to rescue 36 children and four adults who plunged into the sea when a sandbank collapsed at Tenby in Pembrokeshire.
Jon Johnston, from Selly Oak, was the first on one scene and pulled members of the group from Brynaman, Carmarthenshire out of the cold waters.
All of the youngsters are safe and well, but RNLI coastguards said up to six lives would have been lost if Mr Johnston, together with Adam Pitman and Coral Lewis, had not reacted so soon.
Senior lifeguard Mr Johnston, aged 21, said the drama unfolded at about 4pm on Saturday at a raised sandbank known locally as the White Back, around half a mile Tenby South beach in west Wales, where up to four thousand people were enjoying the sunshine.
The lifeguards were on a team-building exercise with an organisation called Action Camp and Mr Johnston had already spotted the group who were playing on the dangerous sandbank.
He had started driving towards them to warn them to get back to shore, some 25 behind them, when disaster struck.
Mr Johnston, who works as a summer lifeguard in Pembrokeshire, said: “The people were in three different groups and were walking backwards into the surf holding hands.
“They were ankle deep in water and fully clothed. I saw them doing it and drove up to warn them using our PA system to get back to the shore.”
Before he got to them, the sandbank suddenly shifted, and within seconds all the group were panicking head-high in water.
He said: “I knew this was going to be a major rescue and was concerned. With so many casualties and one lifeguard, I thought ‘how am I going to do this?’”
He radioed back to Mr Pitman, a senior lifeguard aged 27, who sped to the scene on his quad bike before they both jumped into with a rescue board and rescue tube.
“We started doing a relay back to the shore,” said Mr Johnston.
“We took small children back first, then went back and took the others. The group was made up of people who could swim and those who couldn’t.
“As they had coats and shoes on, those who could swim got dragged under.”
In the meantime, another one of their colleagues, Miss Lewis, aged 17, radioed the emergency services and other lifeguards for immediate assistance.
The men spent up to 15 minutes getting everyone back to shore where they started to administer first aid and checking for hypothermia and secondary drowning.
He said: “The children were in shock and panic and were shouting for help.
“We had two children - one possible near-drowning and one possible breathing difficulties, but they were both checked over. They were all very grateful afterwards.
“If the lifeguard wasn’t here it would have been a terrible situation, there could have been lives lost. If we weren’t there at the time, if we weren’t pro-active, if we didn’t go out to tell them to come back, then minutes, seconds would have counted on that rescue.
“We were lucky we were there.”
Mr Johnston, who left St Thomas Aquinas Catholic School in Kings Norton, to work as a lifeguard at Tiverton Pool in Selly Oak when he was 16 and will study paramedic science at Worcester University in September, said: “Tenby is very popular with people from the West Midlands and they don’t always know about the dangers.
“Always use a beach with lifeguards and swim between flags.”