Dorset tunnel death pair died 'instantaneously'
Friday 20 July 2012
A couple who were killed when a landslide engulfed their car died almost instantaneously, a coroner said today.
The inquest into the deaths of Rosemary Snell, 67, from Misterton, Somerset, and Michael Rolfe, 72, from Fivehead, Somerset, was opened and adjourned at West Dorset Coroner's Court.
The pair were driving home from a night out in Beaminster, Dorset, when their silver Skoda was flattened in a tunnel by hundreds of tons of mud and rubble.
Ms Snell and Mr Rolfe left the restaurant early on July 7 because of appalling weather, but never made it home.
Their bodies lay undiscovered in Beaminster Tunnel until Monday evening after Avon and Somerset Police requested a search of the site following a missing persons report.
A spokesman for Dorset Police said: "The coroner has heard evidence that the pathologist found that the cause of death for Rosemary Snell was chest compression due to trapping in landslip.
"The coroner has also heard evidence that the pathologist found that the cause of death for Michael Rolfe was a fracture of the cervical spine due to trapping in landslip.
"The coroner states the death of Rosemary Snell would have been very rapid, while the death of Mr Rolfe would have been instantaneous.
"It has been stated the prospect of rescue for all practical purposes would have been nil.
"A full inquest will be heard in due course."
Friends of the couple reacted with shock at the news of the deaths.
Villagers in Fivehead, near Taunton, said Mr Rolfe, a father of four, was a gentleman, while Ms Snell was described as a well-educated woman who was involved in the Women's Institute and other local groups.
Mr Rolfe picked up a newspaper every day from the nearby Crown pub.
Landlord Steve Chastell, 58, said: "He was very private, he was a gentleman.
"He was an asker rather than an answerer, if you know what I mean."
Margaret Wilson, 70, who was a member of Fivehead Bridge Club with Mr Rolfe, said: "He was a widower, a nice chap, perfectly friendly but a fairly private man."
Ms Snell had moved to the village of Misterton, near Crewkerne, from London.
One villager said: "I think everyone knew her in the village. She had a magnificent spirit and was most enjoyable company socially. Everyone will be terribly shocked by this."
Dorset Police have referred the case to the police watchdog to investigate the actions of the force.
The Independent Police Complaints Commission said: "Dorset Police will be referring the Beaminster Tunnel landslip deaths. This will be assessed and a decision made about mode of investigation."
A spokesman for Dorset Police said: "While no areas of concern have been identified, due to the high level of public interest in this incident, Dorset Police is keen to display transparency and to ensure that there is an independent oversight into actions of the force."
Details about the couple's final minutes emerged when a restaurant worker revealed they left the Bridge House Hotel in Beaminster, Dorset, early after enjoying a two-course dinner.
Jane Fox, the maitre d' at the restaurant said they were eager to get away and skipped having a coffee to avoid the bad weather.
Ms Fox said Ms Snell and Mr Rolfe left the hotel at about 10pm.
It is believed the landslide - just a mile and a half away - happened less than 10 minutes later.
Dorset Police confirmed that both bodies had been recovered after the car was removed to a police station in Weymouth.
Inquiries by Avon and Somerset Police traced the couple to the Beaminster area on the night of the landslide after a missing persons investigation was launched.
The A3066 road, which runs through the tunnel, has been closed since the landslide and Dorset Police are facing questions about why it took 10 days to locate the car.
Assistant Chief Constable James Vaughan said emergency services searched the tunnel but did not find any vehicle.
"There was no sign of any vehicle and, at this time, there were no reports of any missing people in the surrounding area," Mr Vaughan said.
"The chance in a million that somebody just happened to be driving through when it went down, there was nothing to tell us that at the time.
"It wasn't obvious in any way, shape or form that a vehicle was there."
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