A mum’s haunting last words to her teenage daughter before she was swept away by river have been revealed.
Emma Carter said “be safe” to her teenage daughter Nicola when she left for a day out over the summer with a friend and her younger brother.
On August 21, 2020, Nicola Williams headed for a day out during the holidays after the first coronavirus lockdown was over.
The devoted big sister, known to her family as Nikki, wanted to enjoy the summer ahead of starting Year 11 at school.
She was making the most of life after lockdown, teaching 10-year-old brother AJ about “all the things that kids get up to” after buying her school uniform ready for the following month.
But in a unthinkable set of circumstances Nikki got into trouble while playing in the River Rhymney near Ball Road in Cardiff.
Despite a large rescue effort that lasted over an hour, sadly the talented singer could not be saved after she was swept away by a strong current.
It was a tragedy which left the community in mourning, sparking an outpouring of generosity to help a family during their darkest hours.
Now, Emma has bravely shared Nikki’s legacy ahead of what would have been her 16th birthday next week, and to urge people to respect a memorial created at the site of her death.
Emma, 42, said: “She was playing with her brother and her friend. They told me they were going to the lakes, I didn’t even know they had gone to the river.
“It was her friend who rung me at five to five that night and she said ‘Nikki’s in the river, we can’t find her’.
“We had to go down there as quickly as we could, when I was stood on the bridge I still had the kids on the end of the phone because we had to locate where they were.
“My partner had run past and grabbed my phone, he found the kids and dived in to try and find Nik and he couldn’t find her.
“I’m the one that made the call to the emergency services when I finally could.
“[The weather ] was a bit iffy, it was Storm Ellen at the time. I said to Nik I really don’t think you should go but she said mum ‘don’t be silly, we’ll be fine’.
“The last thing I said to her was be safe and then she never came home.”
The second youngest of five siblings, at home Nikki loved to sing and draw. Over lockdown she created her own versions of Tinkerbell and Chip the teacup from Beauty and the Beast, something Emma is one day planning to have turned into a tattoo.
In a tribute by St Illtyd’s Catholic High School at the time of her death, head teacher David Thomas described Nikki as a “polite, respectful and hardworking” student but also as someone who was full of “fun, kindness and generosity to others”.
To older sister Emily, she was “funny, sassy, beautiful Nikki”, someone with a heart of gold and loved by many – something which is clear today.
On Friday, St Illtyd’s Catholic High School invited Emma up to the school to see a memorial bench crafted in Nikki’s honour, to be placed in the area where Year 11 pupils usually spend time. Running along the bench, an inscription reads: “Truly great friends are hard to find and never forgotten. Cherished memories of her smile and kindness will stay with us forever.”
Paying tribute to her daughter, Emma said: “She was one of a kind.
“All she wanted to do was go and spend time with her little brother before she went into Year 11. She was trying to show AJ there was things they could do and go and have fun as grown up children as he didn’t need mum around him all the time.
“She was a classic older sister. She’d take him out and have fun with him, show him all the things that kids get up to and it just ended in tragedy the way it did.”
Today, the bank of the River Rhymney holds a special significance for Emma.
Together with family, she will make the half hour walk to the area at least once a week, where she will visit the site where Nikki was playing to sit, talk to her and remember.
For Emma it is a source of comfort, and a place where in time she hopes to make a permanent memorial in honour of her “darling girl”.
However it has also been a source of pain in recent weeks, after finding pictures at the memorial ripped and thrown nearby.
Emma said: ” It’s where you go and sit and have a chat about daily life and what you’re doing without them and how things are wrong without them, but it brings you comfort at the same time.
“The way I am spiritually, because of where she died, and how she died, her soul is at the river. That’s where her soul left her body so that’s where I feel more connected, that’s where I can go and speak to her.
“I’d like to put solar lights in that area as a family because that’s where she was playing. We want to make it beautiful so it’s not so much hurtful memories and that we can go down there as a family and have little picnics and stuff.
“I have sown a load of wild seeds down there so in the summer time it will all flower up when you walk over the bridge.
“With the weather getting bad it’s a bit harder for me to go down because the river getting higher obviously reminds me of that evening but I still try and make sure I take a trip down there once or twice a week if I can.”
Speaking about the vandalism, Emma added: “I want to try and make it really pretty for her but then people go ripping her pictures down and throwing them in the bushes, I can’t understand it. In a way it feels like the family is being bullied, that Nikki is being bullied.
“For people to go pull things down and just throw them away like she was nothing is horrible, it really is. It’s like they are stopping her receiving her gifts from her family.”
As well as her river bank memorial, there are countless more ways Nikki is being remembered by her family and friends.
In the days after her passing more than £5,000 was raised by the local community to give the teenager the send off she deserved, something Emma says was made possible thanks to people’s generosity.
On the day of Nikki’s funeral she was taken by horse and carriage from her home to a humanist service near Wenvoe. At the end of the service, a video of the teenager giving advice and encouraging others was played – something which her mother says represents who she was better than any words can.
Then there is the tattoo of a blue elephant Emma has designed in Nikki’s memory, a design that Nikki’s sister and several other community members have also adapted.
Emma said: “When she passed over in the hospital they put a little blue elephant in her hand and I have a matching blue elephant off them in my bedroom. The blue elephant links everyone with Nikki and the blue elephant that she has in her forever garden with her now.
“Elephants don’t forget do they which is another reason why we chose it.”
Describing Nikki, Emma added: “She was funny and quirky. She had this little thing where if she was having a bad day she’d run out of school and she’d have Miss Mac chasing her up the street…she’d wave at Miss Mac and then run.
“But she promised Miss Mac that this year none of that was going to happen. She stopped doing it, she gradually eased herself into it, she’d walk away from the teachers and back into the classroom.
“She started realising that she needed to stay there and she promised everybody that this year was going to be her year. The day that this happened she went to Cwmbran and bought all her uniforms by herself for the first time with her little brother and everything.
“She loved singing, she absolutely adored singing. It was amazing to see that transformation, she was actually starting to gain confidence in herself which she had never really had.
“She used to always sing that song ‘There Must Be Something in the Water’, she sang that for two months before she died. That’s the only one that I seem to listen to nowadays when I’m walking. I listen to her playlist that she had on Spotify, she only had that one and that’s all I listen to these days.”
Next Saturday, Emma and Nikki’s siblings Hannah, Emily, Robbie and AJ will celebrate what would have been Nikki’s 16th birthday.
To mark the occasion the family will go to her forever garden and share a McDonald’s – Nikki’s favourite treat – as well as place a polystyrene cake Emma has made with false flowers.
Throughout the day, they will also hold a number of memorials for people to come together to remember if they wish.
Emma said: “We’re going to do a balloon release on Saturday at 3pm on her birthday at Trowbridge Park which is where we did the original balloon release anyway.
“And then we’ll do a candle vigil outside the house in the evening when it’s darker so anyone who wants can come pay their respects and feel close to her on her birthday. If not they can light a candle at home for her.
“We’ve got one of the best communities around here, they have done so much for Nikki
“With the help of everyone else we’ll make sure her memory stays alive.”