The girl on the pink flamingo-shaped raft was floating away quickly, screaming as her father yelled for a lifeguard who didn’t appear.
Four brothers, who were visiting Ireland from the D.C. area, had just unpacked their towels after arriving at Portmarnock Beach near Dublin, where they had expected to spend a relaxing afternoon Monday. Before they could think about it, they were sprinting into the sea and swimming toward the girl as fast as they could during the almost hour-long rescue.
“I knew we were getting deep, but I didn’t care,” Declan Butler, 18, said Wednesday in an interview. “I just didn’t want to give up on her.”
One stroke, then another in the cold, sometimes choppy water as they raced toward the girl in the distance. They had a moment of panic when the 6-year-old was still far away and fell off the raft and briefly dipped under the water, then popped back up.
It was adrenaline that propelled the brothers to speed swim for about 25 minutes until they were close enough to yell to her that she would be okay, that they would bring her back to shore, Declan said.
Declan, his twin Eoghan Butler, and Walter Butler, 21, are strong athletes. So is their brother-in-law, Alex Thomson. Three had swum competitively, and Thomson, 24, is an ultra-runner. Walter had been a rescue swimmer on a Coast Guard cutter.
Still, swimming to reach the girl — they estimated that she was a half-mile out — was harrowing, they said. Declan and Eoghan, who live in Arlington, Va., and Thomson, who lives in Rockville, Md., said they weren’t sure how long she’d be able to hold on to the raft.
When they finally reached her, they helped keep her head above water and took turns swimming on their backs with the girl on their chests as they made their way against the current back to shore.
“It was intense. It was emotional,” Thomson said. “If anything, it was extremely rewarding once we got to her.”
Walter, who also lives in Arlington, had waited on the beach in case he needed to perform first aid. He swam out to meet them when they got close and brought the girl the rest of the way to land.
Walter also said that as the brothers were swimming out toward the girl, her father grabbed a life vest, threw it around his own neck and swam out to try to save his daughter, as well. But the father was not a strong swimmer, and after the girl was safe on land, the father was still in the water.
The girl’s brother approached the four rescuers for more help, and two of them swam back in to get the father.
“Eoghan and Declan actually brought the dad into shore, as well,” Walter said.
Beachgoers rushed to the girl to cover her in layers of towels as the brothers moved her into a beach tent to protect her from the elements, they said. A rescue service crew and paramedics arrived a few minutes later and brought the girl to a hospital. She was later released.
As the brothers recovered on the beach after the rescue, they felt the pressure that had built up in their chests slowly subside. They figured the pressure was from the cold water mixed with the stress of saving the girl.
The girl’s family, who lives in Ireland, visited the brothers Tuesday at the house where they’re staying to thank them.
“Seeing her jump around, kiss her mom, that was actually amazing,” Declan said.
Two days after they saved the 6-year-old, the brothers were still thinking about an unlikely twist of fate: They had traveled to Ireland to celebrate the life of their recently deceased grandfather, whose brother drowned on the same date decades before the rescue.
“It’s kind of like this godly, guardian angel kind of feeling,” Walter said, “that the same day he drowned 64 years ago is the day we actually saved the life of a 6-year-old girl.”