Suicides 'to soar over New Year'

THE EMERGENCY services are planning for an unprecedented number of suicide attempts in London on the eve of the millennium. They fear scores of men and women could throw themselves into the Thames.

Police, the fire brigade, ambulance crews and the Thames river police are to practise throwing life-size human mannequins from London's bridges to see how quickly their boats can rescue them from the river.

A full-scale practice rescue operation will take place later this year when the weather conditions are closer to those expected in December.

"We will be hurling life-size, life-weight dummies from the bridges to show people how this can happen and to see how quickly we can respond," said a spokesman for the Port of London Authority which is in charge of safety on the Thames.

It is feared that some cults may stage mass suicides on millennium night, possibly in a high-profile location.

Emergency services are worried that rescue attempts could be hampered by hundreds of boats, including cruise ships and private yachts, which will gravitate to the Thames to watch the celebrations. Thousands of onlookers are expected to line the river banks and the bridges.

The chances of surviving a suicide attempt in the Thames are slim because of the freezing temperatures and the current. Rescuers must reach victims within 20 minutes for them to stand any chance of survival.

A recent rescue simulation, involving all London's emergency services, the Government and local authorities, looked at how the emergency services would respond to a crash between two pleasure boats with passengers thrown into the water. The mock-disaster found that it was unlikely that there would be enough emergency boats in the vicinity to get to most of the victims on time. "Unless you pulled the people out in 20 minutes you didn't stand a chance," said one participant. "I wouldn't go on the river again after the things I learned."

"The Government is putting a lot of emphasis on the river as the centre of the millennium celebrations," said Eddie Lister, leader of Wandsworth Council, which organised the rescue simulation, "but it comes back to whether they will be safe."

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