THE English traveller saved from drowning off the coast of Ireland spoke for first time last night about the incident that has gripped the country.
Fighting back tears, 29-year-old Lee Cooley – who husband-to-be Peter O’Keefe and 23-year-old honours graduate Johnny Herlihy died saving last Sunday week – said: “The one thing I want to do is throw my arms round the families of those two men and say two words – sorry and thank-you.
“I feel so bad about what happened and everything has just been a complete blur ever since.
“I can’t get over what those men did and I have nothing but absolute admiration for them.
“I have so much to thank them for and have a real problem with the fact that I can’t grab them by the hand and tell that to their face.
“It’s a scenario I’ve played over and over in mind every night since they drowned – being able to find a way to say thank-you.”
And Cooley, who is known to both South Yorkshire and Hampshire & Isle of Wight Police forces, added: “I am so sorry for their families that they have lost two very special people.
“I will never ever get over what they did. And I am so very deeply sorry for their families’ loss.”
And of reports – including two incidents in 2004 which led to his arrest in the UK – about his violent past, he said: “A number of people have come out of the woodwork and said what they have to say about me.
“OK, so I am no saint but however I have lived my life, I can say with absolute clarity that my life will never be the same again.
“I am turning over a completely new leaf in what has perhaps not been the most traditional of lives and I hope that in time, I will be able to make it clear to the families of these men that they did not die in vain.
“I know I can only prove that by my actions from now on.”
He said his recollection of events is still hazy, and still finds it hard to go over the course of events in his mind.
Cooley was swimming with Cork pal Cliona Murphy when he ran into trouble off Owenahincha Beach, west Cork.
Buried last Friday, O’Keefe – who was walking along the beach with fiancee Ann Riordan at the time – managed to reach the stricken swimmers with a lifebuoy, but moments later a gigantic wave pushed him and Herlihy under the water.
The same wave pushed Cooley and his partner ashore to safety.
After the incident, details of his past emerged.
Former friends had spoken about how he had bitten two men in separate incidents in 2004, and at one point had spent time in a bail hostel normally used to house offenders.
Since leaving home more than ten years ago, his lifestyle has invariably involved living in a variety of travellers’ camps and odd-jobbing round Europe.
Although it was initially believed he had left Ireland, Cooley is now at a secret address.
It is not known if he will attend the inquest into O’Keefe and Herlihy’s deaths, although at the moment it is unlikely he will be compelled to attend as the cause of their death is unlikely to be disputed.