Fifty-six years after his lifeless body was pulled from a canal in Limerick city, New York father of four, Michael Downes, finally got to meet his rescuer, and say “thank you”.
The Brooklyn native was seven years old when he slipped and fell into the Canal Bank in Corbally, while visiting his Irish relatives, in July 1963.
Then 17-year-old Mícheál Mulcahy, from Garryowen, was the local hero who put his own life on the line to save the drowning American boy.
Until today, the pair had never met or spoken since the dramatic incident, as Downes had left the scene before an exhausted Mulcahy finally emerged from the murky water in his drenched clothes.
The two men embraced one another during an emotional reunion at Mulcahy’s home in Parteen.
Downes hugged and kissed Mulcahy and told him: “Thank you. If it wasn't for you I wouldn't be here and my kids wouldn't be here...Unbelievable.”
“It took me fifty-six years to come back and say thank you. You are a true hero,” he said.
“I’m glad you came back. You haven’t changed a bit,” Mulcahy joked.
Downes said the incident is forever etched in his memory:
“I got real calm and I thought - that was it - and then all of a sudden, next thing I know, somehow, I’m coming out of the water...somebody came for me.”
Mulcahy, who was working nearby, heard other children “screaming” for help, and he raced to the water’s edge.
“No one went in. They were screaming to get a rope. There was no sign of you,” he told Downes.
After diving in, the Limerick father of four spotted Downes, who, he said, was not moving.
“And going down and looking for you, and the next thing I spot you down on the floor. You were close to being (dead). Once I lifted you off the ground, I got my shoulders underneath you and up and screaming for a rope,” he recalled.
Downes described a feeling of “calm” as he sank to the bottom of the canal.
He had “accepted” he was going to die.
“You had given in. I could see it, no bit of life,” Mulcahy said
Luckily for Downes, who couldn’t swim, Mulcahy was familiar with the local waterway.
“I was born and reared in there alongside the canal. That’s where I learned to swim, messing as kids. So I was at home,” Mulcahy said.
“At 17, sure I’d lift St John’s Cathedral,” he joked.
Mulcahy admitted however, he often since thought it could have been a double tragedy, had he not have been a strong swimmer.
“They left me inside, I swam down to steps but I had boots on me and a big heavy jumper. The thing that delighted me was I took the dive down to get as deep as I could,” he added.
After regaining consciousness and vomiting water from his lungs at the side of the canal Downes said he walked home to his granny’s house, and didn't mention his brush with death.
“I was just a kid, I just thanked God I got out of the water. It was all so unreal,” he added.
One of Downes’ four sons visited Mulcahy ten years ago to thank him for saving his father, but Mulcahy said he always hoped he would finally meet the boy he saved.
Downes said he had promised his Limerick mother who passed away last March he would make the trip to Limerick from his home in the US to meet Mulcahy.
Downes’ wife, Linda, wept tears of joy as she looked on at the pair chatting about the incredible moment which has bonded them for nearly 60 years.
She said: “Michael has been wanting to thank him since it happened. He’s my soul mate, and if he had (died) I would never have met him and we would never have our (four) boys. I’m gonna start crying again.”
“It means a lot to both of us, and I’m so glad that Mícheál was still here on earth, to thank him. I’m just overwhelmed.”
Downes (63) and Mulchay (73) toasted their reunion with a glass of Irish whiskey before visiting the scene of the dramatic rescue.