When Austin Mellor was in year seven, a boy in his year was being bullied. It had been going on for a while, and Mellor hated it. One day he snapped and gave the bully a black eye. It worked. The bully stopped.
When Mellor’s mum, Julie, found out, she was worried. “She says I’m one of those people who goes out of their way to help others, even when I probably shouldn’t,” says Mellor, now 25 and an estate agent in Greater Manchester (who certainly would no longer advocate resorting to violence).
On Julie’s birthday, 24 July 2021, the family gathered at her home in Anglesey to celebrate. Mellor woke up early and, wanting to get his mum out of the house so his girlfriend and sister could prepare a birthday surprise, suggested they go for a walk on nearby Benllech beach. It was a chilly morning despite the season. On the way back, Julie bumped into a friend, who promptly asked why there were balloons in her house. “I was like, urgh!” Mellor remembers. “There’s the surprise ruined.”
Frustrated, he turned and gazed across the golden beach, which is bounded by jagged rocks on each side. The tide was out. The sea was turbulent. Mellor spotted two women about 30 metres out and was immediately concerned. “It was really cold that day. The waves were really choppy.” Mellor pulled out his phone and set a timer. “I do cold water swimming. Eight minutes in cold water can be a long time. I wanted to see how long they’d be in there for.”
Mellor climbed on to a wall overlooking the bay to better watch the women. When the timer read four-and-a-half minutes, the women began swimming back. One of them staggered up the beach – he later learned that her name was Tina Powsey. Her friend, Maggie Kinnucane, was still in the water and being dragged out to sea. Powsey appeared to be in shock. She asked Mellor to dial 999, but he knew there was no time for that. He stripped to his boxers and plunged in.
“The water was so much worse than I expected,” he says. “The waves were lapping over the top of me as I swam. As I got further out I had to punch through the waves.” A rip tide had dragged Kinnucane 60 metres out to sea.
As he approached Kinnucane, he shouted to her to roll on her back. Kinnucane didn’t respond. She’d stopped swimming. Her head was bobbing under the water. A wave crashed over them both. When he emerged, he couldn’t see her any more. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is it.’”
He found Kinnucane, who was completely limp, and began struggling back to shore. “I was fighting a rip tide,” he says, “holding a person.”
Mellor swam towards the rocks at the northern end of the beach. “I managed to get my foot on a rock,” he says, “and dragged her up.” Kinnucane was barely conscious. They stumbled on the rocks, which sliced Mellor’s feet and legs. Two men ran over to help and the three of them carried Kinnucane to where an ambulance was waiting. Before it took her away, she thanked him. Mellor remembers: “She kept saying, ‘I was gone. I was done.’”
“Austin saved my life,” says Kinnucane later, “risking his own life in the process. I will be for ever grateful and I’ll never forget him.”
After she left, Mellor realised he was covered in blood. He had deep gashes on his feet and knees. He got in the shower and as he stood under the stinging water, the adrenaline wore off. “I could feel all the pain of the cuts, and it really hit me then.”
In the water, Mellor never thought he was going to die. “I did think: this is bad.” But after, he realised how close he’d come. “There was a lot of luck involved. I have never felt at the mercy of something as much as I did when I was in the water that day. I didn’t have control. I just had to fight.”
He keeps getting flashbacks to the moment Kinnucane’s head slid beneath the water. “It’s stuck in my mind,” he says. The night after the rescue, his girlfriend woke him up. He’d been swimming in his sleep, still trying to rescue Kinnucane.
When you save someone’s life, says Mellor, you feel connected to them forever. Meeting Kinnucane after she was discharged from hospital, it felt “like she was family, someone I’d known for a long time”. He doesn’t feel like a hero. “I think everyone should try and help other people.”
When it comes to his treat, Mellor makes a typically adventurous request: to visit a ski slope. Manchester indoor ski centre The Chill Factor sets him up with a complimentary month’s pass.
Mellor has always loved skiing. He trained to be a ski instructor and always hoped to do a gap year on the slopes, but life got in the way. I catch up with him as he decompresses in a nearby Wetherspoon’s, après-ski. “It was really fun,” he says. “Just so nice to get out and enjoy the snow. For a while I thought I’d forgotten how to ski because it had been so long!”
He plans to use his ski pass to get an adrenaline fix in a safer, more controlled environment. “It’s definitely better to do this than swim in rough seas all day,” Mellor jokes.
And this way, his mother won’t have to worry.
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