‘I still don’t believe it’s happened’ – heartbroken dad breaks silence after River Wear tragedy

Michael Purvis with his daughter Georgia and son Michael.
Michael Purvis with his daughter Georgia and son Michael.
Have your say

THE dad of tragic teenager Tonibeth Purvis today opened his heart to the Echo about the heartache he has been through since his beloved daughter drowned while trying to save a friend’s life.

Michael Purvis has been left to pick up the pieces as he battles to come to terms with life without the 15-year-old.

Tonibeth Purvis, who tragically died after getting into difficulty in the River Wear near Fatfield in July 2013. Pictured here with her younger sister Georgia.

Tonibeth Purvis, who tragically died after getting into difficulty in the River Wear near Fatfield in July 2013. Pictured here with her younger sister Georgia.

Tonibeth died a hero after she jumped into the Wear to rescue her drowning schoolfriend, Chloe Fowler, 14.

Recalling that tragic day, Michael, of Barmston, Washington, said: “It was the longest five hours of my life. It was the longest day of my life.

“It just seemed to go on forever until they found her. I still don’t believe it’s happened.”

The 41-year-old – also dad to Michael, 13, and Georgia, eight – was told by police to wait at a pub close to where both girls went into the water at Fatfield on Tuesday, July 23.

“The police took us into the Biddick Inn. We just waited,” he recalled.

“It was about 9pm when they told us they’d found one of the girls. Everything just stopped.”

The bodies of both girls were recovered that night.

Now, three months on, Michael is still fighting to come to terms with what happened.

He said: “Things come into your head, and it starts me off straight away.”

Michael says he will remember his daughter as a “funny and selfless” girl.

“Everything that has been said is right. She would do anything for anyone,” he said.

“Michael hasn’t really said much, but when Georgia talks about her, she’ll say ‘my Tonibeth’s dead. She’s a star in heaven watching us’.”

Michael is a cabbie working for Washington Taxis, based minutes away from where the teenagers drowned, and only returned to work four weeks ago.

“I wasn’t going to go back,” said Michael. “I saw the flowers that had been put at the river from the office window, and that was enough for me.

“I couldn’t face going down to see them.”

The devoted dad is separated from Tonibeth’s mum, Charlene Bell, 33, of Houghton. She also has three-year-old twins, Charlie and Josh, with partner Ian Bell.

Michael said he had gone through the last three months in a daze, barely able to take in the tragedy that has befallen his family.

“It just doesn’t feel real,” he said. “I
keep imagining she’s going to come through the door and ask me for her pocket money.

“It would have been her last year at Washington School and her prom in the summer. She was talking about dresses and things. It would have been her 16th birthday in March.” He said it was his other children who have kept him going since then.

“It’s not something I wish, but life does go on,” he said. “I have to keep going for them. I would have gone crazy if it wasn’t for them.”

He added that the support of those who had raised money in Tonibeth’s memory had also been a help, and her family, including Tonibeth’s grandmother Tracy Gregory, whom she lived with, had been overwhelmed by the tributes paid to the teenager.

“It’s just unbelievable,” said Michael. “I think she would be surprised how popular she is and how many people turned up to the funeral.

“She had friends from all over. I didn’t even know Chloe. She had so many friends, I probably did meet her, but I didn’t know her.

“When I look now and again, there’s still people putting messages on Facebook for her.”

Michael is now getting ready to say his final goodbye to Tonibeth.

“I’ve bought a cemetery plot to bury the ashes,” he said.

“There are so many friends and family members, it’s somewhere we can all go.

“Everything has been done the way Tonibeth would have wanted it.”

BRAVE Tonibeth Purvis could be in line to receive a posthumous honour for her “true act of courage” in trying to save Oxclose Academy pupil Chloe Fowler.

The 15-year-old, said by other friends to have been “born a princess, and died a hero,” has been posthumously nominated for one of the Echo’s Pride of Wearside awards, for child of courage. Allan Tutty, a cousin of Tonibeth’s grandmother Ellen Purvis, 65, of Sulgrave, married to Harry, 64, nominated his relation for the bravery award.

“I felt that I had to do something,” said the 54-year-old, of Seaburn Dene.

“I am proud to say that she was a part of my family, and I would like to see some permanent recognition of her selfless act be awarded to her.

“Tonibeth was a beautiful young lady with her whole life ahead of her, and her life was so tragically cut short by one heroic act.

“Everyone has been touched and devastated by the whole thing. No one could fail but to be.

“Doing this is one way of showing that pride in her.”