SA hero rewarded for saving a drowning woman in London

It takes guts to jump into a river to save a drowning woman, especially in the exact spot where somebody had drowned in a similar situation just a few weeks before. But Stellenbosch university alumnus, Brandon Visser, didn’t hesitate when on a training run near London Bridge, in the UK, after running 16km in preparation for a marathon. Visser, who is working in fintech in London, told about what prompted him to jump, his injuries, how people filmed the event instead of helping – and the award he received for his bravery. – Linda van Tilburg

How preparation for a marathon became a quest to save a drowning woman

I was on a training run in preparation for a marathon. I was running a new route along the Thames, heading towards Tower Bridge over London Bridge and as I was approaching London Bridge, there was this crowd of people looking into the water. A guy pulled me over and essentially showed me a girl drowning in the river and I asked if I could do anything to help. I looked over and I saw a girl clearly struggling to swim. Two guys were trying to throw a lifebuoy towards her, but it was getting knotted up and regardless, it seemed she wouldn’t be able to grab onto it because you could see she couldn’t really swim. It looked like she could drown at any point. So, being a strong swimmer and having played water polo through school and university, I figured I had a pretty good chance of getting to her. The water looked manageable, although quite turbulent from the boats passing. So I took my shoes off, jumped in, and unfortunately, it was really shallow. It was about a ten-metre jump into approximately one- or two-metre-deep water. I hit the bottom of the river and I broke my foot pretty badly and a number of ligaments in my knee. But luckily, I was still able to swim to her.  She was submerged underwater when I got to her. I pulled her out and managed to swim her to shore and a boat picked us up, took us to hospital, and luckily both of us survived.

What prompted Visser to risk his life to save a stranger?

I guess you never really know what you’re going to do in a situation like that. If I think about it now, I wouldn’t naturally just jump in, but seeing someone drowning made me feel quite desperate. I was looking at her and I thought if I watch her drown in front of me, I’m going to have this guilt of seeing someone die in front of me when I definitely felt I was capable of saving her, although it was a scary jump and the Thames is quite treacherous.  I think those survival instincts just took over in the moment and I also bet on my chances that I was capable. I wasn’t expecting it to be so shallow; so that obviously took me by surprise. I thought I would jump in and swim to her and I thought in terms of where she was in the river, she wasn’t in the middle of the river, she was actually kind of close to the side. So, I think she jumped off London Bridge and I jumped from the side, not off the bridge itself, but the side is pretty high as well, depending on what the tide is like. I went for it and I think it was the right call. As you know, I’m not dead. She’s not dead.

Visser has not heard from the woman he saved

The only interaction I had with her was in the water. But she was quite unstable. She was pretty frantic. I don’t really know what the situation is with her. The nurse at the hospital said she was going through some things and struggling. So, I wasn’t really expecting to hear from her and I don’t expect to hear from her. For me I’m happy that someone’s life was saved. It is like a second chance at life, so that’s probably the best part of it all.

A man died a week before at the same spot trying to save somebody 

I think it depends on the tides and if there are boats passing. The police told me afterwards that there’s quite a big undercurrent in the Thames that pulls you under which I was sort of experiencing, but luckily, not to the extent that it completely sucked me away. But you do feel this current pulling you under and that makes it quite hard to swim. And I also knew about it being a bit treacherous because there was a guy who jumped in a few weeks before, also to save a girl from drowning at London Bridge and he drowned. The currents pulled him under and a second guy jumped in and was able to say this girl. I knew all of that; it was going through my head at the time, but as I understood it, he was in the middle of the river and this girl was close to the side and I thought, I’m not going to be pulled under if I jump from the side – and luckily, I wasn’t.

A past to prepare for lifesaving, and a full year to recover

I went to school at Paul Roos Gymnasium, where I played water polo and I was quite competitive, and also at university. Then living in Stellenbosch and in Cape Town; you spend a lot of time in the ocean. I would say I have been a waterbaby my whole life. I also had a little bit of experience in lifesaving and was taught to life-save, so I knew what to do when you see someone drowning and what to expect. One of the expectations is that once you reach someone who is drowning, they’re going to climb on top of you and sort of fight you, use you as a floating device and you need to be prepared for that. She did do that. My leg was pretty badly injured so that was actually quite hard. I was underwater quite a lot and it was hard to fight her off and try to swim or keep us afloat. But I was able to put her in like a headlock and calm her down and luckily when she realised I was saving her, she just completely relaxed and let me put her on my chest and I swam her to shore.

It’s been quite a long injury because it was my knee and my foot. I wasn’t able to do any rehab on my knee until my foot was able to bear some weight. I was on crutches for about four months, learnt to walk after that and slowly started to run earlier this year. So, it’s been a full year of recovery, but I feel like I’m nearly there now.

Receiving a medal from a member of the Royal family and meeting other heroes 

There is this society, the Royal Humane Society that recognises bravery in the act of saving someone’s life. So, if you put your life at risk or in extreme danger and you’re attempting to  save someone’s lives, they review these cases, they look at the police reports and ambulance reports and if they feel that you’ve done something extraordinary, then they give you a medal. In my case, I was awarded a bronze medal and the event was in May. Princess Alexandra, the Queen’s first cousin, was there to listen to your story and hand you an award and a picture with her. She chats to you a little bit and it was a great experience. It was good to be recognised, I guess, and also just to be surrounded by people who have saved people’s lives, been really selfless in helping others. It was a special event.

Most people film on their phones instead of helping

For me, that was one of the worst parts of the experience, seeing how many people were there. It was London Bridge in the middle of the day, it was 12 o’ clock so there’s a lot of people around. And I just remember being in the water and looking up and feeling quite desperate. I was really injured, I was looking for a girl who was drowning. It was a very desperate situation and looking up, to see if someone was going to help in any way, there was just a crowd of people filming and it made me a little bit angry in the moment. I wanted to express my anger, but I guess I was sort of trying to survive. I couldn’t focus on that too much. But it’s a bit disappointing seeing that. People kind of focused on what their Instagram stories are like or what footage you can get. So yeah, definitely I was disappointed by that, but it is what it is. I guess that’s the way we are.

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