“We spotted the top of a chimney, just the top of it as it was sinking under the water – I still have the image in my head. Obviously it’s a very harrowing situation if your floating home is no longer floating and all of your family and your dog are freezing cold in an unfamiliar situation, surrounded by blue flashing lights.”
Steffan Ciccotti, a 22-year-old volunteer for the RNLI Tower lifeboat station, has been describing his first ever call out to a sinking narrow boat near Canary Wharf.
Last week it was reported that Tower lifeboat station, on the north bank of the Thames, attended 492 call outs, rescued 128 people and saved 19 lives last year.
Full time crewmembers Keith Cima, 62, and Jude McGrane, 29, are also sitting at a table in the snug kitchenette of the RNLI cabin on Tower Pier – teas in hands.
“If that bell goes we will suddenly change from sitting relaxed and we’ll be out,” says Cima.
“We’ll go from uncertainty and not knowing what exactly is out there, to action, and to deep care and compassion when we are looking after the casualty to make sure they survive. If a call is for a person in the water we may have just one chance to get them and if we miss it then somebody is going to die. You never ever lose that frisson, that edge.”
“Last July I had a mayday call from a white yacht saying it was sinking just off Tower Pier,” he continues. “It had a gaping six inch hole punched in its side so that as it came down the river the water started slopping in, then trickling in, then pouring in as the boat sank lower and lower in the water. Not another 100 yard past our pier and that boat would have sunk and put 13 people in the water.”
“How did we plug the hole? One of the marine policemen had the brilliant idea of using a traffic cone to plug the hole. It is all about using your initiative.”
The Thames glints serenely in the winter sun outside the cabin, but London’s iconic waterway is anything but benign.
“The tide is flowing at about three knots now but because it’s a mixture of salt and fresh water the currents are corkscrew,” he explains. “If you fall into it there are a lot of hazards and the water is very, very cold – that’s why we have to get out within 90 seconds of receiving the call.”
“The most important thing once you’ve got a casualty onto the boat,” he explains, “is to keep talking to them and reassuring them: telling them ‘don’t worry,’ and ‘I’ve got you, you’re safe’. You get to know quite a lot about someone in those few minutes, but you can never engage too much because you always have to be able to move on to the next job.”
This complex combination of compassion and distance is necessary when your daily job is to deal with matters of life and death.
“If we can get somebody out of the water and they are reasonably young and they are reasonably fit, we can usually bring them back. But just occasionally we don’t manage to do that,” Cima says.
“Jude and I are paid to deal with blood and distress and bodies,” he adds, “but the remarkable people are volunteers like Steffan who are willing to deal with that sort of situation for no pay.”
“We all look after each other and without exception we all do our best for that casualty, so nobody need look back if it doesn’t have a happy outcome. We all do our best – that’s how we all keep going.”
492 call outs, 128 rescues and 19 lives saved. The simple stats don’t do the Tower crew justice. Support Tower RNLI here and help them to keep saving lives.