ROBERT De Santis was cold and starting to panic. A 1.5m churning swell splashed spray over the Mornington Pier. Fully clothed, Mr De Santis kept a firm grip on a complete stranger — dive instructor Leonie Hanson. He clung to a ladder leading from the surging sea to safety just metres above.
Miss Hanson, 41, had her arm through a life ring, but was struggling. Although she was wearing a divers’ buoyancy control device (BCD), it wasn’t inflated. Then people on the pier began shouting: “Not much longer. They’re coming. They’re coming.” The CFA crew arrived just as Mr De Santis, 47, was questioning what he was doing there. His morning had begun like any other, but at 11.30am he abandoned coffee at his restaurant, The Rocks, after a teenage boy came in yelling: “Someone’s drowning off the pier.” On that rough Friday in June, the only other people around were a fisherman and the boy’s friend. And two divers in full scuba gear about 15m off the pier’s rough western side, one screaming: “Help me! Help me! We need to get him out quickly.”
Rob De Santis ended up in the water in a 1.5m swell trying to save two divers. Picture: Jason Sammon
Malaysian-born Melbourne resident Logan Saminathan, 39, floated unconscious face up while Miss Hanson held him by the back of his neck. She told Mr De Santis she wanted him to help get Mr Saminathan’s gear off. As he climbed down the ladder the swell rose up and hit him, and suddenly he was submerged. He pushed off and reached them just a metre away now. Once unbuckled, Mr Saminathan’s jacket sank like a stone. Someone ripped a life ring off a fishing boat, but the unconscious student on his first day diving in the ocean slipped straight through it. They pulled him back to the ladder and grabbed on.
“Just hold him, hold him, don’t let him go,” said Miss Hanson. She was behind Mr De Santis also gripping the ladder.
With every wave Mr Saminathan floated up while they went under. “What are we going to do? What am I doing here?” thought Mr De Santis. He assumed they were husband and wife but thought Mr Saminathan was already dead. Then he heard her “gargling and gagging”. He turned and saw her looking straight at him. “I let him go and I grabbed her,” says Mr De Santis, choking with emotion.
He tried to put the life ring on Miss Hanson but her bulky gear meant she only got an arm through.
He couldn’t find her oxygen line to help her breathe. Then the CFA arrived.
Three fireys stood on the pier talking and watching him. “What are you doing?” he yelled.
It was a bombshell: the firefighters deemed it unsafe to come down.
“They were yelling at me to get back on the ladder and climb up,” he said. If only they could have thrown a rope or harness to pull Miss Hanson up to perform CPR, he now thinks.
Instead they told him to let her go.
“That’s my demon. I’m dealing with the decision to let her go. I don’t know how long I was in the water, I was cold and I was starting to panic. When the fire department instructs you, you question what you’re doing there.”
Mr De Santis has been nominated for a Pride of Australia award, but says Miss Hanson was the true hero that terrible day.
“Never at any point did she ask for assistance. Her only thought was for Logan. She put his life first. She gave the ultimate sacrifice,” Mr De Santis says.
Miss Hanson’s sister, Nardia Hanson, 37, isn’t surprised by her sister’s actions.
“She would never leave the water without her student. And in this case I really think she should have,” she says, emotionally.
“She would have always put him first. By the sound of it she just fought that hard she didn’t have the strength left to hang on.”
She is full of admiration for Mr De Santis.
“Leonie and her student were wearing what you’re meant to wear in the water, he jumped in with nothing — to help her. She would have been so scared, and tired and angry.
“Nothing can express the amount of gratitude we feel. “He was the last person to ever speak to her.”
Diving was Leonie’s great passion, having learned in 2013 at Harbour Dive School, later becoming an instructor there, says Nardia, who lives in their native New South Wales.
She can picture the “hideous” conditions that day, the sea churning like a washing machine, but says her family are in the dark over why Leonie died and why her BCD wasn’t inflated.
Like Mr De Santis, she wants safety equipment installed on the pier.
“People were aware they were in trouble, but nothing could be done,” she says.
Miss Hanson left behind her parents, brother, sister, partner and three stepdaughters.
Logan Saminathan’s brother-in-law, Puvan Ganesan, also paid tribute to Mr De Santis.
“Many thanks from the bottom of our hearts to the great man, Robert, for his selfless heroic act,” he said.
Mr Ganesan says Mr Saminathan was a “wonderful guy” and his loss is “beyond explanation”, especially for his parents who visited Mornington this month to meet Mr De Santis.
Mr Saminathan was a bachelor and the youngest of four siblings who grew up in the Malaysian state of Perak. He studied IT in Australia then found work and settled in Melbourne.
“Logan was an awesome guy who was fun to be with, meant no harm to anyone and was loved by all who crossed his brief life.
“We all will miss him forever,” Mr Ganesan says.