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Thursday, April 10, 2014
A volunteer lifeboat crew member from Highgate saved a man clinging to a barge by his fingertips from drowning in the Thames in a dramatic night-time rescue.
Stephen Wheatley was part of a crew of three volunteers from the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) who raced to rescue the man near the decommissioned Royal Navy war ship HMS Belfast, close to London Bridge, last week.
The 58-year-old said the unidentified man was lucky to survive.
“If he had let go, he would have gone under the barge and then it’s a lottery,” said Mr Wheatley, a managing director of a technology company, who lives in Avenue Road. “I don’t know if he would have come up again.”
Mr Wheatley and his two colleagues, based at Tower Lifeboat Station near Waterloo Bridge, were discussing what to have for dinner when they were alerted to an emergency just after 8pm last Wednesday.
They pulled on their lifeguard suits and were in a lifeboat in just under a minute.
The London Coastguard informed them by radio where to find the man, who was desperately clinging onto a driftwood collecting barge – a boat that filters rubbish and debris floating on the Thames.
The lifeboat powered along the river until the crew spotted the man and Mr Wheatley and his colleague Stuart Morrison pulled him into the lifeboat to safety.
Helmsman Chris Walker then sped to St Katharine’s Docks, where an ambulance was waiting.
Mr Wheatley, who has served as a volunteer lifeboat crew member since 2005, working 12-hour shifts after a full day’s work at least twice a month, said: “It’s a remarkable feeling.
“I know that if the RNLI said to me now that I couldn’t do this any longer, I would think about the time I spent in the lifeboat and feel it was worth it.
“It’s a real privilege. The RNLI is a spectacular organisation and we are very fortunate as a nation to have this kind of service provided by a charity.
“Apart from my wife and family, it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.”
Mr Wheatley said the rescued man was very cold and confused but able to speak and walk.
The London Ambulance Service was unable to confirm the man’s identity but Mr Wheatley believed him to be a 22-year-old Italian.
It is not known how he entered the water.
The Tower Lifeboat Station is the UK’s busiest, last year rescuing 128 people and saving 19 lives.
The RNLI needs volunteers to collect donations at Waterloo Station on April 29 during London Lifeboat Week, which runs from April 28 to May 4.
n To sign up, visit: http://bit.ly/1mUzjdd