Heroic teenager Tonibeth Purvis lost her life trying to rescue her friend Chloe Fowler who was caught by undercurrents in the River Wear.
The schoolgirls’ families and friends are coming to terms with the tragic events of Tuesday which saw the teenagers pass away after spending the hot afternoon with friends on the banks of the river close to Fatfield Bridge, Washington.
Police leading the emergency search for the girls said 15-year-old Tonibeth from Barmston, Washington, died trying to save 14-year-old Chloe, who they believe entered the river in a bid to cool down from the summer heat.
Among their friends, Tonibeth has been described as a “hero” for her efforts to save Chloe, said by her devastated family to be a “beautiful, kind and caring girl”.
Joined by friends in moving tributes to the teenagers was 14-year-old Alannah Turnock from Oxclose, Washington. She said: “Chloe was amazing, there is no other word for her. She was totally amazing.
“Tonibeth is a hero in everyone’s eyes. I hope no one else will be down here in the river. Chloe was a smart girl. Hopefully everyone has learnt a lesson and this doesn’t happen again.”
Standing shoulder-to-shoulder, school friends of Tonibeth and Chloe, who lived in Shiney Row, yesterday visited the spot on the river’s edge where the girls spent their last hours.
Just before 2pm, nearly 24 hours after the tragedy struck, the group threw flowers down into the now peaceful waters.
In the silence, the sound of the grieving friends singing Adele’s Someone Like You was carried out along the river.
What started out as a fun summer’s day for the pair turned into tragedy when Chloe, said by school friends to be a non-swimmer, got into difficulties.
Realising what was happening, Tonibeth and a group of up to eight teenagers she was with jumped into the river in a frantic attempt to save her from the river’s strong undercurrent.
Tragically, they too succumbed to the power of the river and passers-by, including an off-duty policeman, were alerted to the group’s frantic shouts.
Police say the passers-by “tried to save as many children as they could” but were unable to help Tonibeth and Chloe, whose bodies were found later on Tuesday after an extensive search of the river.
Supt Alan Veitch of the Sunderland Area Command said: “Tonibeth tried her best. Chloe has gone in on her own free will and Tonibeth has gone into rescue her.
“At about 3pm, we received calls of children having difficulty in the river. Chloe had gone in voluntarily to keep cool and because of the current has gotten into difficulty.
“Other children have tried to go to save her and also gotten into difficulty.
““Passers-by were able to save other children who nearly drowned, but two children never came out. A search was launched and at 9pm the body of the first girl was found and at 10pm the second girl was found. The families are distraught, it is a hugely tragic accident.
“This is an absolute tragedy and our deepest sympathies are with the families of the two girls at what must be a devastating time for them.
“They are obviously completely distraught at what has happened and we’re doing everything possible to support them at this time.”
Hundreds of people took part in the search for Tonibeth and Chloe with a mass effort by police, paramedics, divers and the fire service. Six hours after those first reports, firefighters from Byker Fire Station in Newcastle discovered the bodies.
Chloe’s family released a statement paying tribute to their “caring girl”, adding: “Chloe was a beautiful, kind and caring girl and we as a family are devastated by what has happened.
“We would like to thank everyone involved in helping us to look for the girls. We would ask that we are given some time and privacy to grieve.”