I’d do anything to kiss Emily one more time

9 November 2014
The Sunday Times

A mother who lost her husband and their eight-year-old daughter when their speedboat went out of control has described how she heard her eldest daughter crying, “Daddy’s dead, Daddy’s dead.”

Victoria Milligan, her husband, Nick, and four young children were thrown from the boat off Cornwall in May last year. Milligan was struggling to hold on to her four-year-old son and swim away from the boat’s propeller when she heard 12-year-old Amber’s cry. She describes how her future flashed before her.

“Lying in the water, dipping into unconsciousness having lost a lot of blood, I was figuring out how I was going to look after the children on my own,” writes Milligan, 40, in an exclusive article for The Sunday Times Magazine. “I would put the house on the market, buy a smaller one… It still surprises me how strong that survival instinct is.”

Milligan’s lower left leg was partially severed by the propeller and later amputated. She writes movingly about how her family’s lives have changed. “Long-term plans for our future have very suddenly been taken away,” she says.

It was a boat trip into the Camel estuary near Padstow, Cornwall, that was to have been the highlight of a perfect family day out on May 5 last year. After a lunch of fish and chips on the boat, they drove up and down the estuary.

As the day wore on, Victoria became concerned about the low tide and suggested going back to Rock, where they stopped. Her husband, Nick, an advertising executive, 51, took off the kill cord — a safety device that switches off the engine if pulled — to retrieve his sunglasses at the back of the boat.

Increasingly worried about the low tide, she had started the engine by the time he returned to her side. Without reattaching the kill cord, her husband reached across her to take the wheel.

“At the same time as pulling the steering wheel down hard to the right, he pushed the throttle up to its maximum, causing the boat to go into a steep turn and we all found ourselves flung into the water,” Milligan writes.

“I can only presume that he was helping me to make the turn and slipped.”

The parents and all four children were flung into the water. As she struggled in the water to save herself and her four-year-old son Kit — whose leg was also sliced by the propeller — Milligan says it was then she heard her daughter Amber shouting. Emily, her eight-year-old daughter, was also killed by the propeller.

On the eve of the inquest into the deaths, which opens in Truro tomorrow, Milligan describes the heart-stopping moment when, after she was flown by RAF helicopter to hospital in Plymouth, a police officer came in to tell her that Nick and Emily were dead.

“I knew that Nicko was dead as Amber had been screaming it in the water, but not my beautiful Emily,” she writes.

It couldn’t possibly be real. I just remember feeling completely numb.”

Milligan later lost her lower left leg but Kit’s leg was saved after 12 operations. Three canoeists had rushed to the scene, performed first aid and called the emergency services. Soon after, a watersports instructor jumped on to the boat from another speedboat and stopped the engine.

Milligan writes with searing honesty about her family’s grief and how their lives are “dictated by short-term plans of what is in the diary for next week or next month”.

“Long-term plans for our future have very suddenly been taken away,” she says.

Sometimes the grief can take her by surprise: “Of course, some things are always going to floor you like when Olivia, my 11-year-old, asked me last week, in a very matter of fact way, ‘Mummy, who is going to walk me down the aisle now?’

“Or when I’m at the supermarket check-out and find I have put peanut butter in the trolley. It was Emily’s favourite and she’s the only one that ever ate it.”

Although the family home is in Wandsworth, southwest London, Nick and Emily are buried at St Enodoc Church in Cornwall, close to where the family have a holiday home.

Milligan, who has helped to raise £750,000 for Child Bereavement UK, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and the Cornwall Air Ambulance, has returned to work as a personal trainer and is writing a book about the tragedy and its aftermath.

She wants it to serve as a practical handbook on grief. “Nobody knows what to do or say when someone is bereaved and I want this to help people from personal experience.”

She urges others to value what they have and make the most of every day they have with their families. She also wants to raise awareness about the importance of safety devices on boats.

“I can never change what has happened to my family but I can urge other people who use power boats to always wear a kill cord and to do the relevant training.

“My family has been ripped apart and two wonderful and special people taken away from me. I used to resent the bedtime reading, now I would give anything to read Emily one more story and kiss her goodnight one more time.”