Freak wave kills British man and son off Spanish coast

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A British man and his five-year-old son drowned yesterday after the boy was swept into the sea by a wave while on holiday in the Spanish resort of Tossa de Mar, north of Barcelona.

The tragedy occurred around midday when the man, aged 32, and his wife were taking photographs of their two sons beneath a viewing point on rocks overlooking the sea. A freak wave knocked both boysoff balance and swept them out to sea.

The father, whose identity police declined to disclose last night, leapt into the waves and managed to haul his nine-year-old son to the rocks where he clung on for his life. The father then dived back into the sea in a desperate attempt to save the younger son, but he was overcome by the huge waves and both were swept away. Their bodies were recovered an hour later.

The wife, who watched events unfold in front of her, screamed for help. Others at the scene telephoned for the emergency services, but the sea was so rough that a fast-launcher Zodiac – often used for emergency rescue missions – could not set out. The boy's body was found 600 metres out to sea by the life-saving vessel Sirius based in the nearby town of Palamós.

A police spokesman said: "The conditions were absolutely horrific. A force seven gale was blowing, and the fierce undercurrents would sweep anyone away. They didn't stand a chance."

The family were believed to be staying at a local hotel and had braved stormy weather to walk along the picturesque beach known as Mar Menuda.

The surviving son, nine, was being treated in hospital last night, suffering from mild hypothermia. The wife was also receiving hospital treatment for shock.

Police, a firefighting helicopter and the Special Group of Subaquatic Activities (GEAS) of the paramilitary Civil Guard joined the rescue effort. One police officer said: "We tried to alert nearby ports, but the holiday season is over and no one could help."

The helicopter rescue team spotted father and son as they clung to a buoy some 20 metres off the coast, but the heaving sea prevented them getting close enough to rescue them.

None of the family was initially identified. Staff at the British embassy in Madrid said they were waiting for details from the Foreign Office. "We cannot even say at this point where they are from," a spokesman said, He described the deaths as "an absolutely dreadful tragedy."