A FATHER from York today relived the horrifying moment when his family was swept away by a freezing river.

Ashley Hastings, 44, had been enjoying a family day out, when his wife, Susan, and seven-year-old daughter Evie were swept into the turbulent River Wharfe.

Mr Hastings, of Copmanthorpe, today told how he was knocked off his feet by powerful currents that felt "like a horizontal waterfall".

The drama unfolded while the family was crossing the popular stepping stones at Bolton Bridge, Bolton Abbey.

Father-of-three Mr Hastings made sure his 14-year-old son, Arthur, was safe on the bank, then leapt into the rapidly-swelling river but was knocked off his feet by torrents.

He said: "Within a few seconds the stepping stones were all under water. The water level just rose; it was like a tidal wave. There was a real torrent of water coming down. I immediately jumped into the river because I thought I could wade across and grab my daughter but the force of the water swept my feet from under me. My wife and my daughter were still stood in the middle of the river on the stepping stones with water gushing around their legs. I couldn't move. I was clinging on to the stepping stones and it was all I could do to pull myself up onto the bank. I am a good swimmer and swim every week, but it just knocked me for six.

"The force of the water was phenomenal. It was like a horizontal waterfall or being hit by a car. There were big branches coming down the river as well."

After a 40-minute struggle, rescuers managed to drag the mother and daughter to safety, as crowds of shocked onlookers gathered.

Matthew Firth, 32, of Cottingley, went into the icy river and braced himself against the stepping stones for more than 30 minutes, acting as a human barrier' against the current.

Mr Hastings said: "He was up to his chest in water but just by being there he was stopping the full force of the water washing my wife and daughter away."

Firefighters were called to the incident, which occurred on Sunday afternoon. An officer was also swept over the weir and carried to the far side of the wharf where he was left stranded at the foot of a sheer scree until he could be pulled to safety.

More firefighters, helped by the Upper Wharfedale Fell Rescue Team and members of the public, climbed down the bridge and plucked Evie to safety.

Susan was put in a harness and lifted clear of the raging water and Mr Firth, who was also washed away after losing his grip on the wet stones, was hauled up the bridge.

Mr Hastings, who had been at Bolton Abbey on the way back from visiting relatives, thanked all who helped in the rescue. "I'm sure that if they had not been there, my wife and daughter would have been swept away within seconds."

Ben Heyes, of the Bolton Abbey Estate, said: "We are gathering the facts of what happened. It needs to be thoroughly examined and carefully measured as to what is most appropriate to make sure that people's safety is not compromised."