Volunteer lifesaver Jennifer, then 16, saved the life of Sayed Hashimi, a 22-year-old non-swimmer, who became caught in a rip at Killcare Beach on the NSW Central Coast in 2017.
“I guess it’s just in my nature,” says Jennifer Webb. “I love helping others, giving back to the community.”
On a cold and blustery Easter Monday morning in 2017, Jennifer arrived for her fourth full-day shift as a lifesaver at Killcare Surf Lifesaving Club on the NSW Central Coast.
She was 16, the youngest lifesaver on duty and, after setting up the beach with her fellow lifesavers, Jennifer began her patrol. “The flags were about 10 metres apart, the rips were really strong, the surf was big and it was overcast and windy,” says Jennifer. “It wasn’t a nice day to be at the beach.”
Two-metre swells framed the usually idyllic NSW Central Coast beach. “Swimming not advised” signs had been posted and the beach had only been reopened that morning after a three-day closure due to bad weather.
Jennifer may have been the youngest lifesaver but she had more than 10 years training under her belt. She started at the age of five with Nippers at Killcare SLSC after her parents, both non-swimmers, moved from the country to Empire Bay.
Jennifer was not an immediate fan. “I didn’t enjoy it at the start,” she says. “I really didn’t want to be there. But I had some awesome guys take me under their wing and they taught me how to swim properly. And I loved it from about age eight – being able to get in the water and muck around with your friends.”
Mucking around evolved into serious training and, after becoming a rookie lifesaver at 15, Jennifer began volunteer patrolling for the 87-year-old club aged 16. Apart from the weather, Easter Monday looked to be an unremarkable shift. "I thought it was just an average day on patrol. But it ended up being a lot more than that."
At about 2pm, a group of men were playing soccer on the sand north of the flagged area. Among them was Sayed Hashimi, a 22-year-old from Blacktown who had no swimming ability. When the group’s ball rolled into the surf, Sayed and a friend ran in to grab it. Moments later they became caught in a flash rip and were carried swiftly away from shore.
Jennifer was busy watching a group of children swimming outside the flags at the southern end when another lifesaver pointed out the two men. Killcare SLSC official Craig Sheppard says Sayed, exhausted from fighting the rip, was heard “howling with terror between waves” and was ready to give up. Grabbing a rescue tube, Jennifer raced into the water.
“I got to the first gentleman and then I realised there was actually a second man who was in more trouble than the first.”
Knowing she had back-up coming, Jennifer raced to Sayed. “By the time I got to him he was actually underwater so I had to pull him up by his hair and put the tube around him. He was just breathing and I was about 80 metres from the shoreline.
“It was, ‘I’ve got him, I now need to get this man who’s twice my size back in.’” With her eyes stinging from the saltwater, Jennifer used the waves to drag Sayed back to shore.
On the beach, Jennifer gave Sayed oxygen therapy as he flickered in and out of consciousness and threw up water. She knew there was a risk of secondary drowning from the water in his lungs. “He said, ‘Thank you’ but the ambulance people came down and took over and I sort of walked away.”
The reality of saving a person’s life took a few days to sink in. “I’d never done a rescue so I was just like, ‘Oh it’s just a rescue, whatever,’” she says. “I brushed it off. 'The guy’s alright, I’m okay, it’s all good.’ During the rescue I wasn’t scared … I guess it was the adrenaline kicking in.”
Four months later, Jennifer was awarded a prestigious Individual Certificate of Merit at the 2017 Australian Surf Life Saving National Awards of Excellence. In February 2018, she received a Pride of Australia Award.
“I just did what I was supposed to do,” she says. “I was trained to help people out and that’s what I did. I didn’t need recognition for it so it was an honour.”
For the teenager, the real reward comes from being able to help people. “Even if it’s just a little kid with a stubbed toe … seeing them walk away happy, still enjoying the beach, learning about beach safety is what’s important.”
A few days after the rescue, Sayed wrote a comment on the Killcare SLSC Facebook page saying, “Thank you for being rescued”. Jennifer has tried to contact him but has had no luck.
Nearly two years after saving Sayed’s life, Jennifer remains dedicated to lifesaving. She says her greatest accomplishment is patrolling each year, working to save lives and knowing everyone goes home safe. She would love to work as a lifesaver professionally, particularly at the surf club she says feels like a second home.