Miracle rescue: girl was ‘down for the last count’
THE image of a drowning girl desperately reaching for the skid of his helicopter is burned into pilot Michael Perren's memory.
He was at the controls of Surf Life Saving Queensland's Westpac rescue helicopter patrolling Alexandra Headland in January 1997 when he and crew member Teresa Grant noticed someone in trouble.
An 11-year-old girl, Melinda Ellis, had been swept out in a permanent rip known by locals as "old faithful".
Mr Perren grew up on the Coast and was heavily involved in Alexandra Headland Surf Life Saving Club.
The girl was in water too deep for her to stand but too shallow for a crew member to do a standard 15-foot drop from the chopper into surf.
"It was just a classic 'she's going down for the last count'," Mr Perren said.
So he lowered the helicopter down to about one or two feet above the water.
"She had gone right out in old faithful and she was around the corner. She was off the rocks at that stage."
He could see her going underwater.
"Her arms were reached up as if she was trying to grab the skid of the helicopter."
Ms Grant timed her jump to drop into the peak of a swell.
"She grabbed her as she was going down."
The girl later wrote a letter to Ms Grant, thanking her and Mr Perren for saving her life.
Mr Perren had been a crew member in the helicopter rescue service between 1983 and 1990 before he went to Kununurra in Western Australia and Darwin to become a pilot.
He returned to the Coast in 1995 and was chief pilot for the rescue service until 1997.
Mr Perren has since worked in Adelaide and East Timor, where he was contracted to fly UN troops and medical emergency work. He has been pilot manager of Western Australia's State Emergency Rescue Helicopter Service for almost 10 years.
That role involved flying to Mandurah Beach on Tuesday to pick up a surfer who had lost his leg in a shark attack.
Of all of his missions, the Alexandra Headland rescue has taken a special place in his memory.
"She (the girl) is one of those jobs that you remember for the lifetime of your career because we knew that we saved her. That person was going to die if we weren't there."
He also wished the girl well.
"I just hope that she's had a great life and grew up to be healthy and made a difference."
The Westpac Lifesaver Rescue Helicopter Service is trying to contact Ms Ellis as it prepares for its 40th anniversary. She was from Oakey on the Darling Downs at the time of the incident.
Anyone with information can call the service on 3846 8000.