Yanek Kowal, aged 65 who hails from Hartlepool and lives in Herefordshire has been awarded a Roll of Honour by STA after risking his own life to save the life of a drowning 18-year-old man while on holiday in the Lake District. A Roll of Honour is STA’s highest accolade and recognises outstanding commitment towards safety and lifesaving.
It is only the tenth time in 19 years that the Roll of Honour has been awarded by STA – demonstrating Yanek’s exceptional lifesaving achievement said Dave Candler, STA’s CEO, who officially presented the award to Yanek at the Association’s national conference on 12th October.
On 1st August 2019, Yanek was enjoying a quiet afternoon fishing with his wife at Howtown on Lake Ullswater in the Lake District, when he became aware of a large group of young people on the beach area paddling and enjoying the summer sun.
After a short while, Yanek saw two or three people from the group start to swim across the lake to a pontoon some 50-60 metres from shore. As an experienced STA lifeguard trainer, their swimming ability immediately unnerved him and he became acutely alert to the situation and the danger. Thankfully, they made it to the pontoon safely, but a further two young men started to follow them who Yanek thought also looked precarious.
Without hesitation or thought to himself, Yanek asked his wife to instruct the emergency services of the situation, and he quickly emptied his pockets and started swimming out to them.
It all happened so quickly. It was unbelievable and I had to make the most impossible choice in that split second.
When Yanek reached the two young men, later named as brothers’ Bryxzel and Ayxzel Galeon, he was faced with what he says was the most hardest decision of his life – it was a decision that he needed to make in a split second, a life or death decision that nobody would ever want to make.
He said, both brothers were struggling to stay afloat and the older one sank very quickly, and he could not get to him in time, so he had no choice but to try and save Ayxzel who was also submerging. In the struggle that ensued, he thought he was going to drown and was pulled under too; Ayxzel was strong, pulling and holding on to Yanek, fighting for his life. At the same time, a female from the group swam over to try and help; but she also became compromised and was pulled under the water by the panicking Ayxzel who by now was breathing with difficulty. Yanek now had to rescue both of them as they were now under the water.
Using my lifeguard training, I knew that there was more chance of saving the younger lad, Ayxzel, as he was still near the surface.
It took all of Yanek’s strength and determination to separate the pair and land them both safely on the pontoon where they were met by the emergency services. Thanks to Yanek’s heroic actions, Ayxzel survived and was released from hospital later that evening.
An extensive search was then made to find Bryxzel, and Yanek was able to direct the emergency services to the point where the young man had submerged, and his body was sadly retrieved several hours later. He was just 21 years old, and was celebrating his university graduation with his family and friends that day.
Yanek, a STA lifeguard trainer said: “When you’ve trained for this kind of emergency, your instinct is to dive straight in, but it doesn’t matter how well you’ve trained or how long you’ve been doing it, when the situation arises it’s quite a shock. It all happened so quickly. It was unbelievable and I had to make the most impossible choice in that split second. People usually do not survive more than about four minutes once they are submerged and so I had to make that difficult decision because I could sadly only save one of them”.
On presenting the award to Yanek, Dave Candler, who has known and worked with Yanek for many years, said: “I think we can all agree that this is a heart-breaking story, but it’s one of heroism and bravery too and without Yanek’s self-less actions, there could have been two, three or more tragedies that day (including himself). Yanek is highly deserving of this nationally-recognised award and it’s a real honour to present it to him in front of his family, friends and STA peers.”
Yanek said: “I don’t like to think of myself as a hero, a life was still lost that day and I will always wonder whether I could have done anything different; however I know I did my best in an impossible situation and I am proud to receive this award today in front of my STA colleagues.”