When a Leighton man spotted something silvery on the far side of the canal he thought it might be a doll, a model toy, or maybe even a fish.
But, in fact, this fortuitous glance from the towpath across the murky waters was the moment that ultimately saved a toddler from drowning.
Gary Waldram had only nipped out to stock up on a few snacks at Tesco in Vimy Road, but ended up a hero after diving into the Grand Union Canal to save the two-year-old girl’s life.
No-one else had seen the youngster, who had somehow escaped through a garden gate of a house backing on to the canal and whose head was submerged after tumbling into the water.
It was about 2pm on an overcast, but warm, Wednesday afternoon and the 55-year-old was on his way back to his Blenheim Road home.
He had wandered about 500 yards along the towpath when he moved aside as three runners came towards him.
He recalled: “As I dodged them I looked across between two boats on the far side of the canal and saw something small and silvery in the water.
“It just caught the corner of my eye. Then I couldn’t see it again until I walked past one of the canal boats. I thought it was a doll or a model, or a fish writhing about, but I got closer to see what it was and it was a child. It had a nappy on. I was in total shock.
“Her head was under the water. She was lying there waving her arms and kicking her legs, trying to breathe.”
Gary whistled and shouted towards the house near where the child had fallen in, as he could see a woman inside.
He then kicked off his flip-flops and undid his belt to take his shorts off and jumped into the canal.
He said: “It was a shock, but I’d got to get her out. I couldn’t just sit by. From when I saw her she must have been in there about a minute, but I’ve no idea how long she was in there before that.
“I’m not sure how long a child like that could survive in the water. She didn’t look to have any swimming ability and it would have been cold and a shock to her.”
After grabbing the girl, the father of two passed the child up to the arms of the mother who had heard his whistles.
“She was shocked. She was shouting ‘give her to me’,” he said. “I passed her over some nettles to the mother. The child was cold and scared.
“I swam back to the other side and wrung my shirt out.
“They called the paramedics, and two police officers coincidentally just happened to be passing by moments later and I was there in my underpants wringing my top dry!
“I was given a towel by one of the boat owners to dry off. The police told me to get checked out too as you can get all sorts from the canal like Weil’s disease.”
Two days later Gary visited the family to check on the girl’s recovery.
He said: “I popped round on the Friday, just to see if she was ok and meet her. The mother thanked me. She said they’d been out doing fishing earlier, but somehow the child had gotten through the gate from the back garden and got into the canal.
“I hope she goes on to have a long successful life. If I hadn’t have been there that family could have been arranging a funeral now.”
As well as the family’s gratitude, Gary has also received recognition for his June 8 heroics from Beds Police.
On Wednesday, the retired BT worker was presented with a commendation scroll by the Chief Constable of Bedfordshire Police Jon Boutcher at a long service and commendation ceremony at police headquarters in Kempston.
Chief Constable Jon Boutcher said: “It is always a pleasure to recognise Bedfordshire officers who save lives while on duty, but it is also a real honour when a member of the public reacts similarly, when they’ve had no formal training or preparation for emergency situations.
“When I met Gary, he was very humble and told me he just did what anyone else would do.
“However, I believe that it takes real strength of character to spot a child in danger and immediately put her safety before your own.
“I am grateful to our officers who alerted me to Gary’s heroism and we got the opportunity to commend him formally with his family present at police headquarters.”