The family of Michael O’Driscoll, 46, from Lower Killeens on the outskirts of Cork City, said Zack O’Leary, aged 13, from Blarney in Co Cork, should be nominated for a bravery award for trying to help Mr O’Driscoll when he got into difficulty in the river Lee last summer.
Despite Zack’s heroics, Mr O’Driscoll drowned after the incident in the Regional Park in Ballincollig, west of the city.
Cork City Coroner’s Court returned a verdict of accidental death yesterday.
Speaking after the inquest into Mr O’Driscoll’s death, his wife, Jennifer O’Regan, said no words could convey how much it means to her and the wider family that someone tried to save her husband, and was close to him in his dying moments: “Zack is a hero. It’s a simple as that.
“He did his best. We’d like to be able to do something to thank him in time but I don’t think we will ever be able to thank him enough. He’s an amazing boy.”
One of Mr O’Driscoll’s sisters, Marion, said her family will be forever grateful to Zack: “He risked his own life to save Michael, and for a 13-year-old to do, it’s just unbelievable.”
Zack, who played down his role in the incident, said he takes some comfort from the family’s comments.
The inquest was told that several people were in the park and swimming in the river on June 8 last enjoying the evening summer sunshine.
Zack and his friends had been swimming near a weir while Mr O’Driscoll and family members enjoyed a picnic on the river bank.
The inquest was told that Mr O’Driscoll was among three men who jumped from the weir into the river around 7pm, and was one of two who got into difficulty within seconds.
Zack told coroner, Philip Comyn, that he was leaving the water when one of the men who managed to get to safety asked him to go back into the water to help a person in difficulty.
Without hesitation, Zack swam out into the channel to help, while others ran to get a lifebuoy.
Zack managed to grab Mr O’Driscoll for a few seconds, but because Mr O’Driscoll was much bigger and heavier than him, Zack was pushed under the water.
He said he had to let go to save himself, but shouted advice and instructions to a struggling Mr O’Driscoll as he was being swept downstream.
“There is a place close to where he was where you can stand, and I was trying to bring him in there,” Zack said.
“I told him to go into current so he would go into shallow water. He went into the current. I went into the shallower water and followed after. He was gone pale and wasn’t moving.”
Another witness, Melanie O’Driscoll, said in her statement that others shouted at Mr O’Driscoll to roll onto his back, in the hope that he would float to safety.
She said that she, her husband, and another man, waded into the water downstream and managed to grab Mr O’Driscoll, and pull him to the river bank.
She said they tried to comfort his distraught daughter, Charlene, and several family members, who had watched the tragedy unfold.
Anna Burns and her daughter, who were walking their dog in the park and came upon the scene, said she realised quickly how serious the situation was and ran to help.
She said Mr O’Driscoll had turned blue and that his eyes were open, and she began CPR, as the emergency services were alerted.
She said she administered CPR for about 10 minutes until paramedics arrived and took over.
Mr O’Driscoll was rushed by ambulance under Garda escort to Cork University Hospital but was pronounced dead shortly after arrival at 8.10pm.
Dr Margot Bolster, the assistant state pathologist, said a post mortem examination found a blood alcohol level of just 24mg/c — the equivalent of less than one pint — in his system, and levels of prescribed medication lower than the therapeutic ranges. She said these findings were of no relevance to his death.
She said there was no evidence of natural disease and the cause of death was acute cardiorespiratory failure due to drowning.
Mr Comyn expressed his sympathies to Mr O’Driscoll’s family and said: “This is one of life’s tragedies. Here we have a man who was out with family, enjoying the sunshine, making the most of a summer’s evening and going for a swim. I extend my sympathies to you.”
Sergeant Fergus Twomey also sympathised with the family before singling Zack out for praise.
“I would like to commend Zack for his actions.
“He displayed extreme bravery by going back into the river, and trying to save Mr O’Driscoll’s life,” he said.
“Here we have a teenager trying to save a grown, adult man. Zack tried to guide him to safety, and offered advice on how he could maximise his chances of survival.”
Mr Comyn also commended Zack for his bravery, before Mr O’Driscoll’s wife, and his sisters, Marion, Ellen, Breda, and Norma, stood in the coroner’s court and applauded Zack.
They also thanked Ms Burns for her efforts.
Zack, a second-year student in Ballincollig Community School, said he would probably do the same again, if he had to.
His mother, Lorraine, said she is extremely proud of him.
It is expected that gardaí will nominate Zack for a bravery award in due course.