AN OXFORD hero has told how he pulled a man out of a sinking van in the River Thames in the middle of the night to save his life.
Dale Chamberlain carried out the death-defying rescue outside his home on Marlborough Road, Grandpont, in the early hours of Saturday.
The part-time carpenter, 29, said he had just gone to bed at about 2am when he remembered he had left some chisels outside at his back garden workstation and decided to put them away as it was raining.
He had got to the bench, which is near to the garden gate that opens onto the towpath by the River Thames, when he heard a sound.
He said: “I just heard the tyres screeching and then a splash.
“I thought it was a moped, or something like that, and a kid had just pushed it in there.”
In fact, a large van had pulled off Thames Street on the other side of the river, raced through a small residential car park, smashed a concrete bollard and driven into the river.
A traffic cone now sits in the place where the bollard stood.
Mr Chamberlain said: “I ummed and ahed for a minute thinking ‘is it worth looking?’ then I ran to the gate, looked out, and I saw the van.
“The minute I saw it, it was filling up with water. It was just floating past and the water was already coming up to the door and window.
“The gate was locked and my keys were upstairs, but if I’d run upstairs to get the keys it would have been too late, so I had to kick the gate open and I ran out.
“It’s a big van, the engine block was sinking and the back’s full of air, so it’s going down and it’s listing. I’ve got to try and get him out.”
Mr Chamberlain said he shouted for the police at the top of his voice, shouted to his partner Gabriella who was still inside the house, then tore off his jacket and jumped into the river.
He said: “I screamed bloody murder as I jumped in but I didn’t have time to ring the police myself – if I’d left it a couple of seconds later he would have drowned.
“I just had enough time to take off my leather jacket, but I was still wearing my boots.
“I hit the water, sank, my clothes billowed out, I felt frozen solid – but then I just had to get out there.
The roof of the van is still visible in the river.
“I’ve seen the fellow in the van, and he was just sat there like a deer in the headlights – he wasn’t moving or anything, then I started banging on the window.
“I was shouting at him ‘Don’t do this to me mate, don’t just sit there, help me’.
“I was shouting at him to wind the window down, but he was just sat there wide-eyed, he didn’t know where he was.”
In the end Mr Chamberlain said he had to grab the window, which was open about an inch at the top, and pull it out with his hands, shattering the glass.
He said: “I’m free floating, trying to pull the window out, then it gave way: it completely shattered so I’ve got random cuts on my hands.
“The minute I pulled the window out, the water’s gushed in so it’s started sinking even more. I literally had to reach across and pull the guy out.
“I’ve dragged him out then hauled him above the water while I was under the water, then I took him across and eventually it gets shallow enough where I can stand up.
“Luckily I’m pretty tall, so I got him to the embankment and pushed him, then someone else pulled him up.”
By that point, Mr Chamberlain said, police were already on the scene and running towards the man, and he managed to haul himself up onto the towpath.
He said: “His hair was dry, but I looked like a drowned rat.
“When I clambered up, he ran up to me and squeezed me and hugged me.
“I just started shouting at him.
“I was just screaming at him that he was drunk – if he wasn’t then I feel terribly sorry for shouting at him.
“I think I probably put more fear into him than the bloody water did.”
While police officers started to quiz the driver, Mr Chamberlain said he paced up and down on the riverbank, still in a state of shock.
Then, he said: “He mentioned a girl’s name and everyone started thinking she was in the van – no one was sure what he was trying to say.
“I was ready to dive back in there, but everyone was screaming at me not to.”
With police unable to ascertain whether there was a girl still in the van, Mr Chamberlain said he ended up staying out on the riverbank until 5am, torn between wanting to dive back in the water to check the van, and not wanting to put another life at risk.
He said: “If there was someone in there I had more than enough time to go back, so that was on my mind.”
Eventually he went back in the house.
Meanwhile specialist trained crews from Oxfordshire fire service used an underwater camera to confirm that no one was inside the vehicle.
A police officer then rang Mr Chamberlain to say they had not found anyone in the van.
At about 8am, exhausted and still processing the unbelievable events, he finally got to sleep.
The driver was taken to hospital. It is understood that he is thought to have had some kind of medical episode.
Incredibly, this is not the first time Mr Chamberlain has saved someone’s life: just over a year ago, he said, he was walking by the river near Folly Bridge on Abingdon Road, when he saw a rower tip over in the water.
On that occasion, too, he said, he dived into the river fully-clothed and managed to grab the man and swim him to the edge of the river and help him out.
Part of Mr Chamberlain’s proficiency in the water comes from the fact that he is a keen kayaker himself, and when he used to live in Brighton he swam the coastline by the city.
He said: “I didn’t need to think about jumping in the water at two in the morning – I’ve done worse.”
However, since moving to Oxford three years ago to live with his partner and her mother on Marlborough Road, he has now saved two lives and said he had also helped a dog out of the river.
He joked: “I’m on local guard duty for this river at this spot.”
It also helps that Mr Chamberlain is teetotal, so when the crisis struck at 2am on Saturday morning, when many of his neighbours had enjoyed a Friday night drink or two, he was completely sober.
Asked if he felt that fate had played any part in his being the right person in the right place at the right time on Saturday morning, he said: “It was just bloody good timing.
“If I hadn’t gone out to put my chisels away then I might have just left it.
“I’m glad I was out and I hope he’s alright.
“I’m just ashamed for shouting at him – I would like to see he’s alright and apologise to him.”
Thames Valley Police said in a statement that it was called at about 1am on Saturday to a report of a van in the river.
Spokeswoman Louisa Maher said: “A man was already out of the vehicle when the police arrived, he was taken to hospital as a precaution and was not seriously injured.
“No-one else was hurt in the incident and no arrests have been made.
“An investigation in to the road traffic collision is underway.”
She added: “We would like to thank local residents for their assistance during the incident.”