Seventeen people, most of them children, were dramatically rescued by Lough Neagh Rescue last night as they took part in a Duke of Edinburgh challenge.
According to the Coastguard a major tragedy was averted as three lifeboats were tasked to save the 14 children and two leaders after their canoes capsized.
A fourth man who raised the alarm was also rescued when he got into difficulties on the Lough shore.
The fourteen teenagers and three adults were rescued by four lifeboats from Lough Neagh Rescue late on Tuesday night.
The teenagers and two of their leaders got into difficulties when their canoes capsized. The group were taking part in a Duke of Edinburgh Award challenge.
Lough Neagh Rescue retrieved the teenagers, some as young as 13, and two adults from the freezing water in a five-hour operation in pounding rain and high winds.
Nine of the schoolchildren and one adult were treated at Antrim Hospital for slight exposure, while others were treated at the scene.
A third adult who first raised the alarm, was also rescued. He was on shore when he called for help, but got lost and was finally located by the police helicopter and picked up by one of the lifeboats.
Coastguard Station Officer Sean McCann described it as a ‘remarkable rescue’. “It was very close to a major tragedy.”
The Lurgan man said that between Lough Neagh Rescue and the Police a major tragedy was averted.
“They were very lucky. I’ve never been as close to a major fatal incident,” said Mr McCann.
He explained that the closest road access was half a mile from the shore and his team had to wade through briars, reeds and swamp chest deep to get to the shoreline and help bring the casualties to shore.
He praised the swift action of Lough Neagh Rescue and the police helicopter which used heat-seeking equipment to locate the casualties.
It is believed the group had been paddling back from an overnight stay on Lough Neagh’s Coney Island when they ran into trouble.
The canoeists got into difficulty some time before 6pm in the area of Blackers Rock, two-and-a-half miles south of Ardboe in Co Tyrone, which is known locally as a treacherous spot.
At the height of the operation, approximately six ambulances, a police helicopter and a special rescue team were assisting on the shore at Battery Harbour in Coagh – while Lough Neagh Rescue’s three lifeboat crews worked to retrieve them from the water.
Meanwhile, staff at Coagh’s Battery Bar, who watched the rescue unfold, lit fires for casualties as they were returned to the shore.
Stephen Ryan, training officer for Lough Neagh Rescue, who was involved in the operation, said it was a fortunate coincidence that a support lifeboat which is equipped to deal with emergencies was stationed at Battery Harbour at the time.
The rescue started shortly before 6pm, when Lough Neagh Rescue received an emergency call from the Coastguard. “Two lifeboats went from here and another lifeboat came from Kinnego Marina, near Oxford Island,” Mr Ryan said.
“The conditions were very bad – very heavy rain. The whole thing took around two hours. The most severe casualties were brought back to the Battery Bar, which was made into a triage room.”
He said all the teenagers were distressed and suffering from severe cold.
“The kids were as young as 13, but most of the them were between 16 and 18.”
It is not clear whether the group of 16 canoeists – two of whom were adults – were on a school trip or an activity organised by a community group. They were taking part in a Duke of Edinburgh Award challenge.
One eyewitness said the weather conditions on the lough had deteriorated rapidly.