A tale of drama and heroism from the night of the great North Devon flood.

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"I will hold you in my heart forever. Thank you for saving my life."

Vanessa Glover.

A NORTH Devon mum has praised RNLI rescuers who saved her from certain death after she was swept away by flood waters at Umberleigh.

After clinging to a branch in fast-flowing water for almost an hour, Vanessa Glover was saved in a daring operation under extremely dangerous conditions by three members of the RNLI’s Flood Rescue Team.

The 46-year-old from South Molton and her husband Paul met her three rescuers - Paul Eastment, Chris Missen and Martin Blaker-Rowe - at the site of the drama on Monday and told them: “I will hold you in my heart forever. Thank you for saving my life.”

All three volunteers have been awarded the RNLI Bronze Medal for Gallantry – one of its highest accolades – for their calm and professional skill that night.

Vanessa and Paul Glover on the bank of the Taw with Flood Rescue Team members Chris Missen and Paul Eastment. Pic: RNLI Robin Goodlad.Vanessa and Paul Glover on the bank of the Taw with Flood Rescue Team members Chris Missen and Paul Eastment. Pic: RNLI Robin Goodlad.

The drama took place at the height of the flooding on December 23, as Mr and Mrs Glover drove home with their son Silas, aged seven.

“I want to thank you for your bravery, courage, determination, professionalism and commendable quality of character,” she told them.

“You embody the highest principles of selflessness I know: ‘greater love hath no man then that he lay down his life for friends’. But you were prepared to do that for a stranger and that stranger was me and in so doing you gave me the gift of life and the joy of knowing that Santa called on my son at Christmas.”

The drama began at around 1am as fast flowing waters lifted the Glover’s car and pinned it against a hedge. Mr Glover and Silas managed to climb on top of the car, but as Mrs Glover tried to join them, she was swept away.

A diagram of the rescue on the night of December 23, which shows the extent of the flooding and the awkward route the rescuers had to take to reach the tree where Mrs Glover was clinging on. Pic: RNLI.A diagram of the rescue on the night of December 23, which shows the extent of the flooding and the awkward route the rescuers had to take to reach the tree where Mrs Glover was clinging on. Pic: RNLI.

Father and son were rescued by a local farmer and his JCB, with assistance from the fire service, but Mrs Glover had been washed through a garden, across a scrapyard and towards the River Taw.

She managed to grab a branch at the river’s edge, but attempts to reach her failed and a search and a rescue helicopter was at least an hour away.

The Flood Rescue Team was asked to send one of its boats to help search - even reaching the scene was difficult on heavily flooded roads, but the crew were able to launch at 1.51am.

"Their efforts… without doubt saved the life of Mrs Glover."

Group manager Neil Blackburn, DSFRS

‘Inherently dangerous’

The RNLI has described the situation as ‘inherently dangerous’, with the team working in an unfamiliar area, in the dark, battling 12 knot floodwaters and whirling pieces of debris, many large enough to capsize their inflatable boat or damage the engine.

Had this happened, the team themselves would have been in mortal peril, since there was no way to get any back up to them – despite this, all three decided they would attempt the rescue, despite the considerable risk.

The players in the December 23 drama return to the spot where Mrs Glover was rescued. Pic: RNLI Robin Goodlad.The players in the December 23 drama return to the spot where Mrs Glover was rescued. Pic: RNLI Robin Goodlad.

Helmsman Chris Missen expertly manoeuvred the boat in the darkness with only head torches and a small spotlight for aid, while a police helicopter hovered over the spot where Mrs Glover clung to the branch, to pinpoint her location.

Maintaining a steady position in such conditions was extremely difficult and Chris used all his skill to keep control of the boat, while Martin and Paul reached for Mrs Glover and pulled her into the boat.

Heading upstream against the current the boat could only manage four knots at full throttle, a fraction of its top speed.

Mrs Glover was frozen after being in the water for 50 minutes and the RNLI said they thought she would have been able to hang on much longer.

"The risk to all of us was significant – and each member of the team was vital."

Boat Team Leader Paul Eastment, RNLI.

After landing their casualty for first aid, the crew had to manhandle the boat through a gateway and along the flooded A377 to get back to where the trailer waited.

Their night did not quite end there – on the way back through Bishops Tawton they launched to help rescue people in the village and carried on working until 3.30am.

Looking back

Afterwards, Paul Eastment said: “For our actions during this rescue to be recognised is the proudest moment of my career.

“Most importantly for me was the recognition for the whole team – the risk to all of us was significant – and each member of the team was vital to the successful of the rescue.”

Paying tribute to the team, Group Manager Neil Blackburn said during his 26 years with the fire service, this had to rate among the most challenging incidents he had come across: “Their efforts…without doubt saved the life of Mrs Glover,” he said.

Vanessa Glover urged people to support the work of the RNLI and added: “I want to say thank you to Natalie, Terry, Ben, Steve, John, Richard Tate, the Alford family and every member of the emergency services involved in the Umberleigh incident.

“Thank you all for your part in my rescue, it meant and means so much to me that you were there.”

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