River Wear rescue attempt turns to tragedy

Tonibeth Purvis, one of two girls who died after getting into trouble while swimming in the River Wear. Picture: PA
Tonibeth Purvis, one of two girls who died after getting into trouble while swimming in the River Wear. Picture: PA
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A TEENAGER who lost her life trying in vain to save another girl from a fast-flowing river in Tyne and Wear “died a hero”, a friend said.

Tonibeth Purvis, 15, jumped in to save Chloe Fowler, 14, who had entered the River Wear at Washington to cool off. But after a huge search and rescue attempt the bodies of both teenagers were recovered by police dive units on Tuesday night.

Chloe Fowler, 14. Picture: PA

Chloe Fowler, 14. Picture: PA

The teenagers were in the River Wear at Fatfield, Washington, at around 3pm on Tuesday when they were swept away by strong currents.

An off-duty policeman and a member of the public tried to save the girls before around 100 emergency service personnel joined the search and rescue effort. A boy who also attempted to rescue the girls was pulled to safety by the police officer.

Emergency services workers searched into the evening to locate the girls and, as darkness fell, a helicopter searchlight was used to scour the river. Dozens of people had gathered on the riverbanks to watch the rescue effort and were left in a state of shock as news broke that both bodies had been found.

Bethany Rose-McCaffrey, 15, said Tonibeth, of Barmston, Washington, died a hero. “I knew Tonibeth, she was loving and caring and always put people before her,” she said. “If it had been a friend or a stranger, she would have gone to help.

“She died a hero trying to save a friend’s life, which shows we really do have friends out there. She was loving and caring and put other people before her. She was a really good role model and always had a smile on her face.”

Northumbria Police Superintendent Alan Veitch said: “Chloe went in first, Tonibeth and others went in to help her. Tonibeth got into difficulties and so did the others.”

Mr Veitch said Chloe, who was from Shiney Row, near Sunderland, went into the water because of the heat.

“The emerging picture is that she went in to keep cool. I think a lot of children were trying to effect a rescue. It’s difficult for the children who were involved in the incident itself as one or two of them nearly drowned.”

In a statement through Northumbria Police, Chloe’s family said: “Chloe was a beautiful, kind and caring girl and we as a family are devastated by what has happened. We would like to thank everyone involved in helping us to look for the girls. We would ask that we are given some time and privacy to grieve.”

Friends of the two girls have been laying flowers on the riverbank and paying their respects.

Amy Bell, 13, said: “I knew Chloe, she was a fantastic girl and did not deserve this at all. I’ve come to pay my respects because she was such a lovely girl.”

Joss Richards, 13, was in the same school class as Tonibeth.

“She was absolutely lovely,” he said. “She did not have a bad bone in her body, she was really, really nice. She had a wicked sense of humour and always had a cheeky laugh about her. I’m devastated that she has gone.”

One card left with flowers said: “RIP Tonibeth you are a hero. We all have so much respect for you.” Another, left for Chloe, said: “Heaven has gained a beautiful angel who will be greatly missed.”

Sharon Hodgson, Labour MP for Washington and Sunderland West, said: “This is an absolutely heartbreaking incident, and a tragic reminder of the danger of swimming in our rivers and lakes, which lots of young people are tempted to do in the hot weather.”