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Honour for saving sister’s life | News

Sisters Erin, left, and Beth Laas at Pelican Island in Richards Bay. Beth will receive a Netcare 911 Heroes Award for putting her life on the line to save her sister from drowning.

A KwaZulu-Natal girl will receive a medal for bravery at her school assembly after putting her own life on the line to rescue her 6-year-old sister from drowning.

The near tragedy unfolded at Pelican Island, Richards Bay, at the weekend after a morning of surfing.

Beth Laas, 12, and her sister, Erin, 6, had been playing in the shallows, waiting for their father, Dries, 46, about 50m away on his longboard, when the younger child got into trouble.

Talking to the Daily News on Monday, Laas recalled Saturday with a mixture of fear and relief.

“Myself and the girls are all learning to surf,” explained the mechanical engineer, who relocated to Richards Bay from Pretoria with his family three years ago.

“We arrived at Pelican Island at about 8.30am and met some friends. There are a group of longboard surfers – the Pelican Island Longboard Association – together with my family, (we) meet when the surf is good.”

He said the girls had surfed a bit and returned to shore. It was then his turn to practise.

“The girls were on the sandbank, which was relatively safe. So we thought.”

They were heading back to the beach because the tide was coming in when Erin was suddenly overwhelmed by a wave which pushed her into a deep channel.

Beth sprang into action immediately, getting into the water and grabbing hold of her sister’s hand.

The two were able to hold on to one another, and Beth managed to keep Erin’s head above water, but the constant crashing of the waves meant Beth was swallowing a lot of water.

“I was already on my way back to them and when I was 20m away, I saw they were in trouble,” Laas recalled.

He and a friend put the two girls on to their surfboards and, although Erin was physically fine, Beth had taken in too much water when coming to the rescue of her sister.

She had stopped breathing.

“We managed to resuscitate Beth on the surfboard and the NSRI and Netcare 911 paramedics arrived soon after to assist.”

Laas said he had done first aid training years ago, but it was more a case of luck that he knew what to do, managing to get most of the water out of Beth’s lungs.

She was unresponsive at the site and was taken to the ICU of Netcare The Bay Hospital for observation because, he said, secondary drowning was a concern in near drowning events.

Yesterday, Laas said Beth had returned home and was absolutely fine.

Erin returned to school in good health on Monday.

Laas said they would seek counselling for the girls to ensure they had dealt with the incident properly.

“Both girls were absolutely incredible and brave,” Laas said.

“What saved them was that they held on to each other and managed to stay together.”

With Beth’s help, Erin was able to take breaths before going under water each time, preventing her from taking in water.

“The whole incident took literally one minute from the time they got into trouble to getting them on the surfboards. It was in a blink of an eye.

“We have thought about it a lot. It doesn’t matter if your children know how to swim, the sea is unpredictable. We have had many people tell us their children often swim there, but it can happen so quickly.

“The water can be calm and safe one moment, and then it changes.

“You just can’t underestimate the power of the sea.”

Laas thanked the NSRI, Netcare 911 paramedics and the Pelican Island Longboard Association who helped in saving his girls.

Netcare 911 spokesman, Chris Botha, said they had decided to award Beth the prestigious Netcare 911 Heroes Award for her bravery.

“We do not often give out these awards, let alone to someone so young, and this is certainly the first time we have given it to a 12-year-old for saving her sister’s life.

“She really went that extra mile, showing real bravery under difficult circumstances.”

Beth, head girl at Richards Bay Primary School, will receive the medal next Tuesday at the school assembly.

- Published in Independent Newspapers on 9 February 2016.

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