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Dramatic peninsula rescue saves 13

By Sasha Shtargot, Lucy Beaumont
January 3, 2004

Thirteen people were saved in a dramatic mass rescue yesterday at Gunnamatta Beach on the Mornington Peninsula, while three Victorians who dived into shallow water have become quadriplegics this week.

At Gunnamatta, the scene of a tragic drowning six years ago, 13 swimmers were carried by a large wave to a sand bar and then swept further out to sea. They were rescued by four lifeguards in inflatable boats.

Surf Life Saving Victoria rates Gunnamatta as the second-most hazardous beach in the state. On January 8, 1998, two children aged four and seven and two teenagers, 15 and 17, all related, died after being swept away by a rip.

Yesterday was one of the busiest days for lifesavers so far this summer, with 53 people rescued on Victorian beaches, including a total of 15 at Gunnamatta and 13 at Woolamai on Phillip Island.

In one incident, a 46-year-old man was taken to the Wonthaggi Hospital in a serious condition after his surfboard cut a major artery in his leg at Smith Beach.

A peak in incidents so early in the season prompted doctors and lifesavers to urge swimmers to take care.

Brett Ellis, operations manager for Surf Life Saving Victoria, said hot weather had drawn large numbers of people to the sea.

"The hot weather has come earlier this year, so the beaches have been very busy," he said.

"We've also had a nasty, heavy (surf) swell of two metres in the past few days."

The Victorian Spinal Cord Service at the Austin Hospital usually treats only one or two quadriplegics from diving accidents in an entire summer. "Three in a season is too many. Three in a week is just awful," said the service's director, Associate Professor Doug Brown.

One man and one woman in their early 20s were injured on New Year's Day at beaches in Lakes Entrance and Portsea.

A woman in her early 40s, who dived into a backyard pool, was admitted to the spinal injury unit earlier this week.

Assessment of the nerve damage the three had suffered was still being completed yesterday, but they were likely to lose the use of their fingers, hands, arms, trunk and legs.

Professor Brown said the mental, physical and emotional impact of such injuries was devastating.

"The complete (spinal cord) injuries are often in hospital for eight months," he said. "Then there's home renovation, jobs, futures, families. The list of things affected by it is everything in your life. It's the antithesis of everything you'd hope for."

While bone damage can heal, medicine has yet to learn how to repair the spinal cord.

"If you hit your vertebral body, the bone in front of your spinal cord, it bursts. Some goes forward, some goes each side. The piece that goes back goes right into your spinal cord, which is the same material as your brain; soft like a firm jelly," Professor Brown said.

People between 15 and 25 were most likely to suffer quadriplegic injury from diving, he said.

He urged divers to take responsibility for themselves and their companions, test water depth and avoid alcohol and drugs.

Diving into shallow water, less than two metres deep, was equivalent to diving into dry ground, he said.

Two people have drowned off Victorian beaches this summer, the most recent a fisherman swept off rocks on Wilsons Promontory on Boxing Day.

Mr Ellis urged beachgoers to be cautious when entering the water.

"It is a concern for us that two people have died already so early this summer," he said. "People should make sure they swim at patrolled beaches and stay between the flags."

from the AGE.