Relatives thank families of husband-to-be and honours graduate who died saving drifter

THE MOTHER of an English drifter saved in a drowning tragedy has praised the two Irish “heroes” who lost their lives saving him.

Carmel Cooley, who hasn’t spoken to Doncaster-born Lee Cooley for two years and doesn’t even know where he lives, said her heart went out to the families of the deceased.

And she said her 29-year-old son – who ran into trouble swimming off west Cork with a friend before being helped to safety by husband-to-be Peter O’Keefe and UCC Honours graduate Johnny Herlihy – would be feeling very guilty about what had happened.

O’Keefe, 37, had been enjoying a romantic stroll along Owenahincha Beach last Sunday after a family wedding celebration the night before with fiancee Anne Riordan when he spotted Cooley – who he had never met in his life – struggling in the water with a female pal.

Despite his fiancee’s pleas not to go into the water, he grabbed a life buoy and dashed out to their aid along with another passerby, 23-year-old Herlihy.

But despite being able to coax the stricken couple to safety and throw them the life ring, the two men were dragged under water by a massive wave and tragically drowned.

Speaking from her home in Doncaster, Cooley said last night: “I know Lee has always done things for himself, and never needed anybody else and I no longer have much to do with him.

“He will be so shocked and devastated about what has happened, and will be struggling to cope with feelings of guilt over the fact that these men died saving him.

“Hopefully, he will need to talk to someone about it so it would be good if he calls home when he needs to speak.”

She added: “My heart goes out to the families that have been affected by this and I sincerely hope they can find some way of getting over it. I just wish there was something I could do.

“Those two men are heroes for saving my son’s life and for that I am so very, very grateful. But it’s such a tragic thing and I’m so sorry for them and the extraordinarily selfless sacrifice they paid.”

Little is known about her son Lee, who walked out on his family more than ten years ago after leaving school and has barely been in touch ever since.

According to his distraught 72-year-old grandmother Frances Farrell, also from Doncaster, he went off travelling round the UK and Europe.

He is believed to have earned some money odd-jobbing round the south of France, Wales and Holland.

He has only kept in touch with the family a handful of times – notably in around 1999, when he turned up to remove some personal belongings from the family home.

By around 2004, he was believed to be living in a bail hostel in Fareham, in Hampshire. It is not known why he was there but he is “known to police”, according to reliable sources.

The premises he is believed to have stayed in is used to house people bailed awaiting a court case in the nearby Fareham Magistrates Court, on probation after being convicted of a criminal offence or after being released from jail and out on licence.

A resident there said last night: “I’ve never heard of anyone by the name Cooley but then there is a quite a turnover of residents here. People come and go all the time, depending on what they are in for.”

No members of his family – who are still reeling at the extraordinary price that has been paid for his life – were able to either offer any contact numbers him or any of his friends. Indeed his mother Carmel didn’t even know where Lee’s father David Forey is even living anymore.

Grandmother Frances said: “It’s such a terrible, terrible story. I can’t believe how brave those men must have been to save him. It’s such a tragedy that two people have to die to save his life.

“He was a bit of a wanderer, we never know where he is. He rarely contacts us and we don’t know if he has a partner or not. As far as I know he doesn’t have children.”

Fighting back tears, she added: “He doesn’t really have much to do with his family at all. He and his parents don’t speak anymore. What can I say apart from it is a shock to hear he has been involved in something so awful.

“It would be good to know how he is now. I’m not sure what he did after he left school even, it’s been so long. He checks in now and again to say hi, but we never really know that much.”

Cooley and his swimming partner were treated for shock after their own ordeal, which began around 1pm. O’keefe, from Owen, was one of the first to hear their please for help as they found themselves swamped by high waves in the choppy water.

Due to get married next February in Dingle, Kerry and just having completed building a new home, he had been strolling along the beach barefoot, one hand clasped with his fiancee’s, the other his shoes, excitedly discussing their future together.

The Cork couple had the night before attended her cousin Derbhail Gildea’s wedding at Celtic Ross Hotel in West Cork, and were so looking forward to their own nuptuals.

A strong swimmer, he immediately dropped her hand and his shoes to the sand when he heard Cooley crying out for and raced over to pick up a lifebouy before diving into the water, followed closely by Herlihy.

The graduate had just arrived from Glanmire to visit his parents new holiday home near the beach and had been planning to bring them and his grandparents for lunch before they watched Cork play Kilkenny in the All-Ireland hurling final.

His heartbroken mother had also pleaded with him not to enter the water but – like O’Keefe – he pressed on regardless.

O’Keefe managed to reach the stricken swimmers with the lifebuoy, but moments later a gigantic wave pushed him and Herilhy under the water before pushing Colley and his partner ashore to safety. ENDS

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