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'Tragic day': Premier's plea to swimmers as 2021 breaks records for drownings

The Age logo The Age 14/01/2021 David Estcourt and Rachael Dexter
Premier of Victoria Daniel Andrews speaks to the media on January 14, 2021 in Melbourne, Australia. Victorian premier Daniel Andrews has announced Victoria's staged return to office work will resume from 18 January as the state continues to record no new COVID-19 cases in the community. © Photo by Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images Premier of Victoria Daniel Andrews speaks to the media on January 14, 2021 in Melbourne, Australia. Victorian premier Daniel Andrews has announced Victoria's staged return to office work will resume from 18 January as the state continues to record no new COVID-19 cases in the community.

Premier Daniel Andrews has issued a plea to Victorians to take care in the water, describing Wednesday as a "tragic day" after three people drowned in separate incidents.

Authorities rescued six people amid multiple drownings on the Mornington Peninsula and South Gippsland coast on a dramatic day for emergency crews that also saw a three-year-old hospitalised after being pulled from a lake near the Dandenong Ranges. Lifesavers were also involved in a number of other life-threatening incidents.

With 38 drownings since July 1, the past six-month period has smashed annual drowning records, surpassing any other 12-month total in records going back to 2000, according to Life Saving Victoria. There were 34 drownings in the 12 months to June 30, 2020.

The drownings sparked a plea from the Premier and warnings from Life Saving Victoria that the long lockdown could mean people are more at risk because they are less fit and children had missed out on swimming lessons.

"We just ask people to to really be mindful of this, and we again thank all of those who work so hard to keep our beaches safe, but it's got to be a partnership," Mr Andrews said.

"It's got to be a partnership. It's a timely, tragic reminder of just how dangerous, our beautiful coastline can be. Please, swim between the flags, please swim in conditions that you know about and certain about and to your ability. It was a tragic day yesterday."

Mr Andrews said he wanted to extend his "deepest" sympathies to the families of those who died and "to give a shout out" to surf lifesaving and SES volunteers and emergency services who attended the scenes.

"I think it's always important that just as we send our condolences and our best wishes to families who have lost a loved one, we should always remember as a community that these emergency services workers and volunteers will carry yesterday with them for the rest of their lives," he said.

"We send their best wishes to those who came to their rescue, those who did everything they could to see them, they'll carry the burden of that experience, they and their families, for many, many years."

Life Saving Victoria is also urging swimmers emerging from lockdown to approach the water with extra caution following the multiple Victorian water tragedies on Wednesday.

Liam Kirge, Lifesaving Services general manager at Life Saving Victoria, said beachgoers emerging from restrictions imposed in the coronavirus pandemic needed to take extra caution.

"What we've got to remember is that during restrictions there were five million-odd swimming lessons that were missed and their [swimmers'] fitness probably wasn't where it may have been," Mr Krige said.

"We've had a really busy summer this year and seen incidents right across Victoria's coastline … it highlights the need to remain vigilant around water - it's really easy to become complacent.

"There was a lot of activity in a very short space of time. We are just the rescue element - we need to encourage people to keep themselves safe before they get to that point."

The day's first fatality occurred when a man in his 80s died after being pulled unconscious from the water at Rye front beach before a 45-year-old woman died and five others were rescued after a group was swept off rocks at Bushrangers Bay near Flinders.

Several helicopters were deployed to the dramatic scene at Bushrangers Bay at Cape Schanck on the Mornington Peninsula where two men had jumped into the water trying to rescue a group of four women and girls who were swept into the sea by a large wave.

Victoria Police confirmed the 45-year-old woman, a 47-year-old woman, a 19-year-old woman and a 13-year-old girl were swept into the sea about 3.30pm. They were followed by two men, aged 28 and 47, who entered the water to assist the group of four in distress.

Multiple helicopters from Victoria Police, Life Saving Victoria and Air Ambulance scoured the water for the six people, alongside water police and local lifesavers.

All were pulled from the water, including the deceased woman. Paramedics transported the five survivors to hospital: four to Frankston Hospital and one to Rosebud Hospital.

Mornington Peninsular Local Area Commander Inspector Janene Denton said if two bystanders, a 24-year-old lifeguard and 48-year-old man, didn't jump in to assist the four family members that had been swept into the surf, there may have been more fatalities.

"If they hadn't done that, I think more people drowned, more people lost their life," Inspector Denton said.

"It can be very, very hazardous … these waves crept up in this situation."

Inspector Denton said one of the men grabbed his surfboard and huddled the imperilled swimmers together to keep them afloat until they could be winched out of the surf by rescue helicopters.

In January 2019, Melbourne musician Jjay De Melo drowned while swimming with a friend at Bushrangers Bay. In 2017 seven people were swept off the rocks by a large wave, with one man airlifted to hospital in a critical condition.

The day's third drowning happened on Wednesday night at Venus Bay in Gippsland where, police said, a teenage girl was seen struggling in the water about 7.30pm and a number of people entered the water to help her. One of those who went to help, a woman in her 20s, got into trouble herself.

Police said an off-duty lifeguard pulled the woman from the water and started CPR but could not revive her.

All others involved in the incident came out of the water unharmed, including the teen who had initially been in distress.

Police will prepare reports for the coroner for all three deaths.

Meanwhile, police are also investigating after a three-year-old girl was pulled unconscious from Lysterfield Lake about 5.50pm on Wednesday. Emergency Services worked on the girl and she was revived. She was transferred to the Royal Children's Hospital and remained in a critical condition on Thursday morning.

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