Two volunteer surf lifesavers, who were awarded the prestigious National Rescue of the Month Award for performing back-to-back rescues, have been reunited with the men whose lives they saved.
It is unusual for surf lifesavers to meet the people they’ve rescued after the event. But Alex Taylor from Mona Vale SLSC and Jemima McGahey from Palm Beach SLSC were recently reunited with Aref Elmustapha and Sheikh Jalal Chami - whose lives they saved over the October 2019 long weekend at Seven Mile Beach near Forster.
The debt of gratitude the men feel towards the two lifesavers for saving their lives - and the lives of their friends - was immediately apparent.
“It’s very admirable what they do. We’re so thankful to Alex and Jemima who helped in whatever way they could. Because there was no obligation for them to come out and save us. We’d never met each other before,” said Sheikh Jalal Chami.
At the time of the rescues, Sheik Chami was leading a father-son camping holiday with a group of over 40 men who attend the Belmore Mosque in Western Sydney.
“There’s a verse in the Quran that says if you save one life, it’s like you’ve saved the life of all humanity. Every life is important. Every life is valuable. Every life is priceless,” said Sheik Chami.
“The fact that you’re willing to save one life means you have the ability to save every person. That’s something very admirable and something we appreciate very much,” he said.
Alex and Jemima were delighted to be reunited with Sheik Chami and Aref, who they’d rescued, and clearly humbled by their gratitude.
“They’re such lovely men. It’s great to see them again,” said Jemima.
“Normally a rescue is a dive and get them, tell them they’re safe and never see them again,” she said.
Alex and Jemima were off-duty, on a camping holiday at Seven Mile Beach, the weekend of the rescues.
They were relaxing when a member of the public ran into their campsite yelling and asking for help to rescue people struggling to stay afloat in the surf.
“I saw two kids in a rip with bodyboards close to shore. They were okay, but I could see an older guy out the back in trouble and going under,” said Alex.
“I swam out to him and put him on his back and swam him out of the rip,” said Alex.
The man he rescued was Aref Elmustapha.
“He was not in a good way. He was out of breath, off colour and he’d taken on water,” said Alex.
They called Triple Zero and waited with Aref until paramedics arrived.
To say thank-you for rescuing Aref, his friends invited Alex and Jemima to join them for lunch the next day at their campsite.
“Lunch was great,” said Alex enthusiastically. “We got the chance to talk to them about beach safety, the dangers of rips and advised them not to swim where they were swimming the previous day.
“They were too shaken up immediately after the incident to talk about it and so was I to be honest,” Alex admitted. “But at lunch the next day we all had a good chat about it.”
Despite the successful lesson on beach safety, Alex and Jemima’s lifesaving duties were far from over for the weekend.
“We were sitting there having a great lunch when someone came running up and said, ‘we need you again’. I couldn’t believe it. We ran straight down to the beach,” said Alex.
Alex got down to the beach first and saw four people caught in another rip, further up the beach. He dived straight into the water.
Two people were struggling to stay above the water. One was a man in his forties, the other a teenage boy. Alex reached the boy, reassured him and swam him out of the rip.
“We pulled the two guys out. They were in a bad way. They were both vomiting and had taken on water,” said Alex.
For the second time that weekend, they called Triple Zero and monitored the patients until help arrived.
“We were a well-oiled machine by then,” said Alex wryly.
Reflecting on the incident, Alex said that there were so many people in distress, he found the situation almost overwhelming.
“I thought we’d probably lose someone. It was the scariest rescue I’ve ever done,” said Alex.
“If we weren’t there, people would have drowned. I’m certain about that.
Alex said he was thankful for his recent Bronze Medallion training.
“I felt really relieved that all the surf lifesaving training I’d done - the surfing, the competing, the Bronze Medallion - kicked right in. I’ve often wondered in a rescue situation how I’d go. I know I can go alright now. Even in my second season," Alex said.
Jemima said that the successful rescues of the men was a reflection of how effective Surf Life Saving training is.
“You get trained well. You get trained properly. And there’s an expectation on you. Alex is two seasons in, but I’ve been doing it for ten seasons. But we’re at the same level of knowledge,” said Jemima.
Alex explained that becoming a surf lifesaver was a natural extension of his love of swimming and surfing.
“A couple of years ago I was walking past the club on the way to get a coffee and on the way back I went in and signed up,” said Alex.
“I thought I’m a reasonably good swimmer, I’m fit, I know the ocean and I’m a good surfer. I felt a bit of responsibility. I can do this so let’s give it a shot,” he said.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison presented Alex and Jemima with a National Rescue of the Month Award at a function in Canberra’s Parliament House on 2 November.
Surf Life Saving NSW President, George Shales, said that the award was testament to the important role NSW surf lifesavers play, even while off-duty, in keeping the community safe on our coastal waterways.
Surf Life Saving Australia’s National Rescue Medals are an initiative that recognises the courageous and outstanding achievements of our surf lifesavers and members on our coastal waterways.
Friday 13 December 2019