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‘The night we nearly died’ - cliff-rescue quartet’s night of terror on north Norfolk coast

PUBLISHED: 11:38 17 January 2013 | UPDATED: 11:38 17 January 2013

Zoe Russell, back right, pictured with her daughters, Terrie-Leigh Covill 13 and Eloise Covill 11, her friend Carina Pelikan and her dog Mason. All of them had to be rescued after they got stuck on the cliffs between West and East Runton on Sunday night.
PHOTO: ANTONY KELLY

Zoe Russell, back right, pictured with her daughters, Terrie-Leigh Covill 13 and Eloise Covill 11, her friend Carina Pelikan and her dog Mason. All of them had to be rescued after they got stuck on the cliffs between West and East Runton on Sunday night. PHOTO: ANTONY KELLY

Archant Norfolk 2013

A mother has described how an evening stroll along a north Norfolk beach turned to terror and near tragedy.

When her friend suddenly began sinking in mud, Zoe Russell desperately raced the fast-rising tide to free her – before getting stuck herself.

In the dark, icy, struggle Zoe, 31, lost contact with her two young daughters and feared they had drowned.

But the joy of reunion turned to panic and near despair as the party and their dog scrambled up cliffs to escape the waves and waited in pitch-black, freezing conditions for more than an hour before coastguards and lifeboat crew rescued them.

The drama began on Sunday evening when Zoe, her daughters Terrie-Leigh Covill, 13, and Eloise Covill, 11, and friend Carina Pelikan, 21, set out from their home on High Street, East Runton, for neighbouring West Runton, with their dog Mason, aiming to walk off a roast dinner.

As they had done many times before, they decided to walk home along the beach. At first Zoe thought Carina and Terrie-Leigh were just fooling around when they called out to her that Carina was stuck.

But as she carried on walking, Zoe remembers hearing a note of panic and urgency in her daughter’s voice as she shouted: “Mum, she really is stuck.” Zoe was horrified to find that Carina had sunk up to the thigh of one leg in the thick, sticky mud from a cliff slip and the ooze was already at knee height on her other leg, with the incoming tide just inches away.

Ordering her daughters to walk on with Mason, Zoe frantically began scooping huge armfuls of mud away from her friend’s legs. But as fast as she baled, more mud filled the vaccuum.

“For a split second I thought, ‘oh God, I’m not going to get her out’,” she recalled. As the sea lapped around them, Zoe at last managed to free Carina, but then found she herself was stuck. Carina heaved her friend free, leaving Zoe’s wellingtons wedged in the mud.

With half an hour now passed, the tide was in and Zoe desperately started screaming for her daughters. She said: “All I heard for about 10 minutes was silence. It was absolutely awful. I thought, ‘are they in the water’?”

But the girls, finding their way around a protruding stretch of cliff cut off by water, had scrambled upwards. They eventually heard their mother’s yells and sent Mason to fetch her and Carina.

As the reunited, mud-caked, freezing group cuddled, cried and tried to help each other by sharing clothing and singing, Zoe realised they must get help. With painful, throbbing, bare feet she struggled even higher to try and get a signal on her mobile phone. Unable to get through on 999, she managed instead to reach a friend, Martin Dean, known as Bluue, from Cromer, who happened to be in East Runton. He alerted the coastguard service and began scouring the cliffs for his friends as well.

Zoe remembers another heart-stopping moment when Cromer inshore lifeboat appeared offshore nearby, its lights shining, but then turned around and began moving away.“

“We were screaming ‘we’re here!’ but they couldn’t find us,” she said. Exhausted, freezing and in despair, Terrie-Leigh then had a panic attack and began drifting in and out of consciousness.

Fortunately, the lifeboat turned around, fired a flare and saw the stranded group. The crew and coastguards were then able to help them to the safety of a waiting ambulance at West Runton and they were taken to the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital to be checked over. Terrie-Leigh had to be taken from the cliffs by stretcher, with suspected hypothermia.

Recovering from the ordeal this week, Zoe said they were extremely grateful to all their rescuers. And she warned: “Some people might think we were just a bunch of silly girls on the beach at night but we weren’t.

“It was something we’d done many times. If anybody learns anything from what happened to us I hope it’s that the mud from those cliff slips can be very dangerous and the tide can come in really fast. We were lucky. It could have been a lot worse.”

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