The prodigal son

When Jason Waterworth vanished from Ellesmere Port and his family's liv es in 1987, most locals suspected he'd run away to London. The truth was at once simpler and more sinister. Tony Bell reports
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Jason Waterworth was 15 when he disappeared from his Ellesmere Port home seven years ago. On 23 September this year, his body was found inside a chemical tank at the Shell Stanlow oil refinery on the outskirts of the Wirral town. A post-mortem sho wed that he had died from toluene poisoning, the chemical stored in tank 703 for use in products such as contact adhesives and paint stripper. Although Cheshire police knew how Jason died, they were baffled as to how and why he got inside the tank. Murde r wasruled out early on, but there was no shortage of theories, all of which were dismissed, except for the one that at first seemed too outlandish to be taken seriously.

The word on the housing estates of Ellesmere Port - that Jason died after purposely inhaling the fumes from the 1.25 million gallon container - was met with only a pre-inquest statement from the police that "this is a possibility that must be considered".

The possibility became fact on Monday when Detective Inspector Ian Johnson told the Chester Coroner's Court that Jason's death was a "tragic accident". The police position was simple: "There is nothing that gives us any indictation that there was any form of violence towards Jason. There is nothing that shows that he was anything but on his own." Statements from yesterday's school chums testified to the lure of the tanks, Shell said security had improved over the years, the local press took down the verdict - Accidential Death - and it all seemed open and shut. Except to Pat Andrews, Jason's mother. She still has questions: " Shell have got a lot of answering to do. I'm going to see my solicitor, because I'm not going to let it go. I want to know how he got in there."

In television series based on Merseyside, Wirral is often portrayed as a rural idyll. It does have its nice areas, but you would have to look at Ellesemere Port for a long time before being reminded of a rural idyll. While the town centre is unremarkable, the strip of land between the M53 and the Mersey is striking. This former marshland has been colonised by the petrol-chemical giants and presents an image redolent of East European industry at its most unfettered.

Once the prosperity of this Sixties boom town came from its close proximity to these big employers. Today the job security has gone, blown away by the Thatcherite Eighties, and there is a much higher price to pay, as Steve Byrne, from the Community Drugsteam, explains. "Young people started to feel disorientated as traditional job routes closed. They began to explore different ways of getting through the day. Drug and solvent abuse were some of the methods used to do this."

It was in this environment that Jason Waterworth entered his teenage years. A teacher at Stanney High School, who asks not to be named, remembers him as a streetwise, likeable boy preparing for his CSE exams. The much vaunted "economic boom" of the mid- E ighties did not have much of an effect on Ellesmere Port, though Jason had a part-time job in the local market as a way of ensuring that he had some future where many could see none. But he also wanted to put a bit of excitement into his life. He foundi t through sniffing glue and other solvents with friends.

On the tree-lined street where he lived, someone has sprayed "Come Home" on the tarmac. Kids hanging out say it is a reference to the song by James, but the words have a poignancy unintended by the graffiti artist. On the evening of 16 November 1987, Jason left the family home after a disagreement with his stepfather - nothing serious, just what happens when three boys are growing up together. When he did not return the following day, his mother, Pat Andrews, reported him missing. The police conducted what they describe as the "the standard missing person inquiry": posters around the county and eventually nationwide.

There were no sightings of Jason in or around Ellesmere Port. Pat believed he son had made his way to London, the traditional magnet for provincial runaways and she and her husband were to make many fruitless trips over the next seven years, looking for

Jason.

When the body was discovered by workers preparing to demolish the tank, Shell was as mystified as the police as to how Jason had been able to get inside the 30ft by 90ft vessel. The only access to the tank is through the roof manhole, which nullified theinitial theory that he had crawled inside through the ground level entrance, looking for shelter - the hatch being impossible to open due to the pressure inside. As to pinpointing the date Jason died, police concentrated on the batch number of the Benson and Hedges cigarattes found in his pocket. They had been manufactured in September 1987, and sold two months later, at the time he disappeared. Smokers tend not to keep cigarettes for long, and this, together with the fact that there had not been one positive sighting of Jason, pointed to 17 November 1987 as the most likely date of his death. Not until the inquest would it be revealed that Jason and a friend, Stephen Hall, had spend two days wandering aimlessly around Ellesmere Port, until Hall decided to leave for Scotland, leaving Jason on his own.

Shell's head of Public Affairs, Brian Moffett, explains the company security policy: "Because of the size of the site, it's impossible to seal it off completely, despite a high profile deterrence policy that includes regular security patrols, cameras, a

high fence and razor wire." He refuses to speculate as to how Jason came to be in the tank.

For Jason's mother, it is the question of how he got into the site, rather than what he was doing there, that concerns her. The struggle to come to terms with the death of her child is intensified by the knowledge that for all that time his body lay hidden less than two miles from her home and by the realisation that her hope-filled journeys to London began by passing within 500 yards of the tank. "The police kept saying to me: `Don't worry, he'll turn up in a few years with a baby and tell you you're agrandmother', and I think I'd convinced myself that that would happen," she says. She has no idea of what her son was doing at the tank, which is not unusual. Jason Waterworth would not have shared his secret with any adult.

It began innocently enough, when a gang broke into the refinery one night looking for a bit of fun. The smell from the tanks alerted the lads that it may be worth investigating. This information comes from "Steven", an avid glue sniffer from the age of 10, who claims that the trips to the tank began after that night. "Someone found out what was inside the tank. They said it was the same as Evo-stick, because it smelled the same, so we went down and had a sniff of it," says Jason's now 21-ye a r-old former schoolmate. Steven says that local shops were becoming more discriminating in who they sold glue to, with the consequence that it was more difficult to buy. At the tank you could get it for free, with the added thrill of a break in.

Steven says it was "a great laugh". He and sometimes up to 10 others would walk through the underpass of the M53 to cross the scrubland in front of the tanks before scaling the six-foot fence. It was here that he used to see Jason.

"Once we'd got in we'd go up the stairs at the side and lift the grid off and sniff the tank."

Taking turns, they would lean head first to inhale the toluene fumes. "You just trip off on it and you see really weird things, you know, hallucinations," he says.

Once this state had been reached, he and his friends would lie on the roof until the effects wore off.

It wasn't always a group experience. "I've been there on my own, and others have, too," Steven recalls. "When I heard that Jason was dead, I thought, `Wow, that could have been me or any of my mates'." It didn't occur to him that when Jason went missing it may have been because he had fallen inside the tank after going there alone.

While Steven's account is heavy on bravado, the official line from Re-Solv, the anti-solvent abuse organisation, is more down to earth: "Inhaling toluene in those circumstances could lead to rapid intoxication within one or two minutes. In some cases unconsciousness would follow." If Jason was alone on the roof that night seven years ago, on his hands and knees, his head inside the manhole, it would not have taken long before the effects hit him.

Unconscious from one lungful too many, he would have slumped forward, unable to resist the pull into the dark below.

Steven says that he stopped going to the tank because he grew out of it. Jason Waterworth never got the chance to grow out of it. His funeral took place in October, and tank 703 will soon, finally, be demolished. All his mother has left are her doubts: "I just can't understand it. It shouldn't be allowed to happen. Tell me, how could kids get into a place like that?"

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