Father saves daughter as she is sucked along storm drain

As weekend floods claim at least eight lives, RAF sergeant out walking the family dog saves three-year-old after raging floodwater drags her 150ft along culvert and into river
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The Independent Online

A father told yesterday how his three-year-old daughter survived being dragged 150ft (46m) along a storm drain during the severe floods at the weekend.

Leona Baxter was paddling in floodwater with her older sister as they walked the family dog in Chester-le-Street, County Durham, on Sunday evening. She was sucked into the culvert, along a tunnel and thrown out into the River Wear, not far from Durham county cricket ground.

Leon's father, Mark, 34, said he realised what had happened when he caught a glimpse of his daughter's coat in the water. "It wasn't just her coat, it was Leona face down in the river," he recalled.

"I jumped in and grabbed her. The water got up to about my shoulder level and I put her across my shoulders."

Mr Baxter, a sergeant in the RAF, said Leona did not seem to be breathing when he reached her, but she began choking up water as he patted her back. "As soon as Leona was coughing and spluttering and being sick, I felt much happier because she was breathing then," he added.

He handed Leona to his wife, Beverley, 32. Mother and daughter were then dragged on to the river bank by passers-by and Mrs Baxter performed first aid.

Amazingly, Leona escaped with only slight grazes on her forehead. She told her parents she had tried to stay on top of the raging torrent by performing a star float she had learned at swimming classes, but could not do so because she was squashed in the narrow drain.

Leona was playing with her sister Kiah, six, and their pet dog, Brophy, at a playground in Riverside Park when the accident happened. It is believed the storm drain cover, which was under about 8in (20cm) of water, was pushed off by a sudden release of water pressure. Brophy, who was also sucked into the drain, was still missing last night.

Mr Baxter said: "The kids had their wellies on and were splashing around in the puddles. I threw a stick for the dog and that's when my wife shouted 'where's Leona?' I turned around and couldn't see her but I could see Kiah.

"I thought she had just stumbled and fallen in to the water and would come up again in a couple of seconds, coughing and spluttering. When she didn't, I ran though the puddle to see if I could get her and whether she had hurt herself.

"At that point I noticed there was plughole effect in the water – I didn't know what caused it. When I got close, the water was strong. I stuck my arm down the hole and couldn't feel anything – just water swirling around. I thought it was a storm drain and if it is going to spit out it will be in the river."

Leona was treated for hypothermia and was recovering at a hospital in Durham last night. Alistair Baker, a spokesman for Northumbrian Water, said: "This was obviously a horrendous ordeal for such a little girl. A tragedy was averted thanks to the heroics of her father."

Leona's lucky escape came during a weekend of storms and torrential rain that claimed at least eight lives across England and Wales. A girl who died when an off-road vehicle overturned as it crossed a ford near the Llyn Briane Reservoir in Powys, mid-Wales on Friday was named yesterday as Louise Ferreira, 17, of Thamesmead, south-east London.

Also on Friday, Alex Wright, 27, an engineer from Cheltenham, was killed as he surveyed a muddy trench that collapsed on him at a building site in Stroud, Gloucestershire. A couple died as their car hit a tree in Plymouth, and a 42-year-old motorcyclist from Sheffield died as his Kawasaki hit a fallen branch on the A66.

On the A170 in North Yorkshire, another biker was killed in an accident involving a fire engine on an emergency call, and two swimmers died when they got into difficulties at Barton-on-Sea, Hampshire, and Perranporth, Cornwall.

Families in the areas worst hit by the floods returned from temporary shelters yesterday to begin assessing the damage to their homes.

Many were told it could be months before they can move back into their properties. Insurance companies estimate the total cost of repairs to be in the "low tens of millions". Most claims are expected to come from North-East England and South Wales, with the average bill coming to about £20,000.

As the clean-up continues, however, weather forecasters are predicting a further deluge today. Western England and Wales could receive 30mm of rain. Twenty-four Environment Agency flood warnings were still in place last night, mostly in the North-east and the Midlands. In Morpeth, Northumberland, where more than 1,000 properties were left under 2ft of water as the river Wansbeck burst its banks on Saturday, residents posted pictures of the damage on internet forums. Some criticised the local council's flood prevention and relief efforts.

"People here will vent their anger at many people, including the council, but they are really angry at the fact they have suffered severe damage to their homes," said Nic Best, a member of Castle Morpeth Borough Council, who claimed the town's emergency plan had gone well.

As something of a "Blitz spirit" kicked in yesterday, volunteers handed out survival packs containing soap, toothpaste and washbags to those forced from their homes. The council set up mobile phone recharging points at the town hall so people whose homes were still without power could keep in touch with friends and family during their ordeal.

The authority is to hold emergency meetings with the Government and the Environment Agency over the next few weeks in an attempt to speed up plans to build higher flood defences around the river Wansbeck.

The council leader, Peter Jackson, tried to reassure angry residents that improved defences were on the way. "Every lever that we can pull to protect the town, we are pulling," he said. "We are not going to accept "no" as an answer this time."

But Phil Wenton, the engineer managing the flood defences project for the Environment Agency, admitted work was not likely to start until the end of 2010 at the earliest.

Inspectors from the agency went to Morpeth yesterday to see whether the existing defences were damaged as the raging Wansbeck surged over them.

Elsewhere, police warned that criminals were using the floods as a means to trick their way in to people's homes and steal from them. In south Wales, two pensioners were robbed by burglars who said they had come to carry out flood repair work.

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