The heartbroken daughter of a father-of-seven who died while rescuing three of his children after they got caught in a rip tide has revealed how he ‘used all his strength’ to give them a final smile.
Jonathan ‘Joff’ Stevens, 36, was with the youngsters aged ten to 12 at Barmouth in North Wales when they began to struggle in the water yesterday lunchtime.
The plasterer tried to pull the children to safety, and a major rescue operation was launched involving a lifeboat and Coastguard search and rescue helicopter.
Mr Stevens, from Telford, Shropshire, was then pulled from the water and flown to Gwynedd Hospital in Bangor in an air ambulance but died.
Now, his daughter Lauren, 11, has shared how she ran to lifeguards and pleaded ‘my dad is drowning, please save him’.
In a tragic revelation, she also said her father smiled at his children one last time after saving Lacey, 12, and Jack, ten.
Earlier, Mr Stevens’ heartbroken partner Laura Burford, who was back home 80 miles away when the tragedy happened, said he had died a hero while ‘saving their babies’.
Daughter Lauren told the Sun that the lifeguards rushed to save her father, carrying him to the beach, adding that he looked ‘lifeless’.
She said: ‘Dad opened his eyes and looked over to me, Joshua, and Lacey and Jack, who by now were back with us and he gave us a smile.
‘But the next second he collapsed again and the lifeguards carried him in, laid him down on the sand and gave him CPR. He never opened his eyes again.
‘I think Dad had used his last bit of strength to open his eyes and smile at us and when he saw we were all okay he knew he could let go and die happily.’
She also revealed the circumstances behind the tragedy.
Lacey and Jack had bought a new body board they wanted to try out, staying in the shallow end while their father sat around 25 metres from the water’s edge.
However, Lauren says that just moment later, Lacey began screaming, with the children swept around 100 metres out to sea in ‘just a few seconds’ after being hit by a rip tide.
Heroic Mr Stevens rushed into the water, taking off his t-shirt and trousers to dive after his children.
Tragically, though he managed to push both children to safety, he himself was caught up in the current and disappeared under the water.
And Laura Burford, the children’s mother who split from Mr Stevens a month ago after 16 years together, has questioned why there weren’t warning signs in place on the beach about the strong current.
She said today: ‘If Joff hadn’t done what he did I’d be sitting here planning funerals for two of my kids now. It doesn’t bear thinking about. He’s literally given them his last breath.
‘I am absolutely devastated to say that I have lost the complete love of my life. All seven of his beautiful kids have lost their dad.
‘He died saving his kids’ lives in the sea. There are no words to describe the pain. I will always be grateful to (him) for bringing our babies back. I love him, always have, and always will.’
A GoFundMe page aiming to raise £2.000 has been set up to support Ms Burford and the children by friend Mel Plowman, who described Mr Stevens as a ‘true hero’.
A North Wales Police spokesman said: ‘Police and the Coastguard were called at 1.58pm on Sunday to a report that a man had got into difficulty in the sea in Barmouth.
‘The man was taken by air ambulance to Ysbyty Gwynedd (Gwynedd Hospital), where he tragically died.’
A Coastguard spokesman said: ‘At 1.31pm HM Coastguard received a 999 call reporting people in the water off Barmouth and sent Barmouth coastguard rescue team, Barmouth RNLI lifeboat, and HM Coastguard’s fixed wing aircraft.
‘Barmouth harbour master and the Coastguard rescue helicopter and helimed also attended. A male casualty was recovered from the water and transferred to Ysbyty Gwynedd in a serious condition.’
And a spokesman for the Welsh Ambulance Service said: ‘We were called at 1.39pm to reports of persons caught in a rip tide at Barmouth beach.
‘We sent two rapid response cars and two emergency ambulances to the scene where crews were also supported by a Wales Air Ambulance and a search and rescue helicopter.
The Maritime and Coastguard Agency said teams had been busy dealing with multiple search and rescue incidents across the Welsh coast on Sunday.
Along with the incident in Barmouth, it said the Abersoch Coastguard Rescue Team was called to help three people in the water at Hell’s Mouth.
The casualties were said to be suffering from suspected hypothermia and were given medical care, the agency said.
Meanwhile, Aberdovey Coastguard Rescue Team was called at 2.45pm to reports of three people in the water at Aberdovey, resulting in one man being taken to hospital.
On Saturday a man in his 40s died after being pulled from the sea at Pedn Vounder Beach, near Porthcurno, in west Cornwall.
In Brighton, a search operation for a kayaker who was reported missing off the East Sussex coast was suspended last night.
HM Coastguard said a person had been seen ‘going into the water’ from a kayak off Hove Lagoon yesterday morning.
A kayak and paddle were later found on the shoreline in the area. The coastguard said last night the search had since been suspended ‘pending further information’.
It comes after local authorities warned beaches are becoming ‘unmanageable’ due to large swathes of visitors, prompting fears around keeping people safe in the water.
The Coastguard had its busiest day for more than four years last Friday – when the UK recorded its third hottest day ever – as it dealt with more than 300 incidents.