Girl, 6, saved by bystanders as she drifted from seaside beach

Bystanders on a Nanaimo beach jumped into action Sunday evening as a six-year-old girl drifted quickly away from shore on an inflatable.

Dave Lawrence was on the beach at Pipers Lagoon Park with his family when the girl climbed aboard an inflatable shaped like a pizza slice with a woman he believed was her grandmother. The two floated away from shore, but Lawrence said no one on the beach appeared concerned until the woman started to swim back to the beach.

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At that point, the girl’s mother came running to his family for help. Lawrence’s wife called 911, and he saw a couple of people run into the ocean.

Lawrence, an avid swimmer who grew up by the ocean, grabbed his son’s life-jacket and started swimming as the girl screamed for help.

After half an hour at a steady pace, he and others in the water still hadn’t reached the girl. A strong current was pulling her toward the open ocean, and she was heading “dangerously close” to the path the ferries travel to Departure Bay, Lawrence said.

He watched another man swim past faster than he’d ever seen someone move in the water, “like an Olympic swimmer,” and nearly reach the girl before turning back toward shore.

“He gets to the people who were ahead of me and I can hear him say: ‘I can’t do it. I’m going to drown,’ ” Lawrence said.

That seemed to frighten others in the water, who turned around with him, leaving Lawrence chasing after the girl.

“I just started going harder. You can hear her screaming and screaming,” he said.

Shortly after, Lawrence saw a kayaker make contact with the girl. When he knew she was safe with the paddler, Lawrence turned back to make the long swim back to shore.

A boat, alerted to the situation by a mayday call from the coast guard, headed toward the girl, nearly colliding with Lawrence, who swam furiously to get out of the way before the boater noticed him in the water at the last minute.

The boat picked up the girl, and the kayaker joined Lawrence as he swam back to shore.

When he returned to the beach, Lawrence saw emergency responders assessing the girl, who was uninjured.

“The only thing was that guy who swam super-fast, he took in a bunch of salt water and stuff, and was exhausted and they ended up taking him to the hospital, I guess because he was feeling so sick from gulping down so much salt water,” he said.

Lawrence hopes the story is a reminder to parents of the importance of putting lifejackets on their kids, and of how quickly things can take a turn for the worse on the water.

“There are so many tragic accidents [involving] younger kids, when they’re at the beach or the lake or the river or whatever,” he said. “It’s so quickly [that] something bad can happen.

There have been several drownings in B.C. in the last week. A 32-year-old woman died after being pulled from Matheson Lake on July 21, and former Westshore Rebels receiver Nathan Falito is presumed to have drowned Thursday while swimming in Shuswap Lake in the Interior.

regan-elliott@timescolonist.com

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