Action must be taken to prevent a repeat of the tragedy at Bawsey Pits last summer that saw Lynn man Ryan Pettengell drown, said Norfolk’s senior coroner Jacqueline Lake at his inquest this afternoon.
The coroner said she was proposing to submit a report to West Norfolk Council, Norfolk County Council, the police and other community looking into what action was needed - although a health and safety expert from West Norfolk Council said no prosecutions are being considered against the owners of the land.
She spoke after a jury had returned a verdict of accidental death on Mr Pettengell, 41, of Railway Road in Lynn.
The hearing had heard that Mr Pettengell had no drink or drugs in his body on the day he died but had simply got into trouble trying to swim to an island in the ‘Big Lake’ at Bawsey, thinking a missing youth the police were searching for may be there.
Despite the desperate efforts of his girlfriend Lauren Cole and to the horror of his watching friends and two policemen, Mr Pettengell was seen to go under the water and drown.
The inquest held in Norwich had heard that on July 16 last year, Mr Pettengell had been with Miss Cole and four other friends and their four children when it was decided to take advantage of the warm weather and go up to Bawsey Pits late in the afternoon.
In a statement read to the hearing, Miss Cole said that they had been sitting on the shore of the lake for about an hour drinking juice when the police came along and said that a boy had gone missing. Miss Cole said that she was on the island in the middle of the lake at this time and Mr Pettengell had shouted over to her as to whether she had seen anything. She said there were towels on the island and she had “thought I had seen some shape”.
Mr Pettengell immediately got in the water to swim over, although Miss Cole told him not to.
She said he had suffered a broken wrist three weeks’ earlier and had only removed the cast himself four days earlier.
When still 10m from the island he had began to struggle, said Miss Cole and had started shouting to her, “get me a stick, get me a log”.
The statement continued: “I thought at this point he was in trouble ... I ripped a branch off and put it in front of him. I grabbed his arm and started to pull him but my head went under and I was sick in the water.”
Miss Cole said she struck off back for the island but as she looked back “I could see him going under ... I continued to swim back to the island to get another branch but when I looked again I could just saw bubbles coming to the surface where Ryan had been”.
Wesley Moule, who described himself as Mr Pettengell’s best friend, had been with him at the pits that afternoon. He said he had not heard Miss Cole tell Mr Pettengell to stay where he was as he began the swim to the island but that he was a “reasonable to good swimmer” who had been to the pits before with him and also to St James’ Pool in Lynn. He had suffered a broken wrist but it was more like six weeks before that day.
“I don’t know whether he panicked but he started bobbing up and down,” said Mr Moule, “I thought he was joking about. He was a bit of a practical joker, It was only when he went under and did not come up again that we thought something was seriously not right.”
Mr Moule said their friend David Higgins dived into the water to try to save Mr Pettengell but could not find him.
Pc Ryan Williams told the inquest that he and another policeman had been helpless as they saw Mr Pettengell drowning in front of them.
They had been engaged in the search for the other missing youth when they heard Miss Cole screaming. He had seen Mr Pettengell “bobbing in the water ... not making progress”. He had seen Miss Cole’s attempted rescue with the branch but had been unable to assist as both he and his colleague were “not competent swimmers”.
Vicky Hopps, a health and safety officer with West Norfolk Council, said she had launched an investigation into the drowning and that of the 16-year-old youth who was also found drowned in a separate pit later.
She said the car park at the pits was the official entrance but the site was “porous” meaning people could gain entry from almost anywhere. Warning signs telling people not to swim were regularly vandalised.
Seven recommendations had been made following her inspection, including regular inspections of signage on the site, marking map references in areas of danger so people calling for help can guide the emergency services, the use of foreign languages in warni signs, reduce access to the pits by the use of “aggressive planting” such as nettles or bracken or using black dye in the water to make it look less attractive. Also important was educational work in schools.
Ms Hopps said that closing the site would be “a last resort” as the cost of fencing and security on such a big area would be very high. Despite the anti-social behaviour that plagued it now it was enjoyed by dog walkers, people on bikes and runners.
She said the owners Sibelco had taken “all reasonable measures they could and the council were not taking any further action against the company”.
Under questioning she said that provision of lifebelts on the site was a dilemma. “This water is not safe to swim in and anything that discourages people from swimming in it is a good thing,” she said.
Ms Hopps said the company did weekly checks on signs and that she suggested increasing that but added: “The signs can be up one day and removed the next ... when I was at the pits the next day (to the drowning) people were swimming in the water. It is a difficult site to police if people are ignoring warning signs.”
The coroner told the jury that the post-mortem examination had found Mr Pettengell had died from drowning and that there had been no been no drugs or alcohol in his system. She said an accidental death verdict was the only one that the jury could return.
In announcing the verdict, the foreman of the jury said they expressed their sincere condolences to Mr Pettengell’s family and friends.
Miss Lake said she would be compiling a report for the borough council, Norfolk County Council and the police on action that needs to be taken at the pits.