Mystery over keeper’s death in tiger cage

Owner tells of frantic attempt at rescue as police investigate technical fault or human error at zoo

The owner of the zoo where a young keeper was mauled to death by a Sumatran tiger told yesterday of his attempts to save the 24-year-old from the beast.

David Gill recalled the terrifying moment he heard Sarah McClay's screams over the radio and received an emergency message that she was in trouble.

Mr Gill, who owns South Lakes Wild Animal Park in Dalton-in-Furness, Cumbria, said that he was at the scene of the attack within seconds and tried to shoot the tiger. "I dropped everything and so did my colleagues who were working with me and we ran flat out to the tiger enclosure and we were very close," he said.

"We were there within 30 seconds. It was immediately apparent that a tiger had a person. There was no movement or anything. We immediately broke out firearms – the animal manager broke out firearms – and within two minutes we had firearms on scene."

Despite being armed, Mr Gill said he was unable to save Ms McClay's life as he could not fire directly at the tiger. "Sadly we could not get a clean shot to do anything about it, because of where the animal was," he said. "I let off two shots and [the tigers] ran back into the house and the other keepers locked them up."

He and the other keepers then "went into the enclosure to recover Sarah".

Ms McClay is understood to have suffered a cardiac arrest at the scene; she also sustained serious injuries to her neck and head. Paramedics tried to revive her before she was taken by air ambulance to a hospital in Preston, where she died.

Inspector Matt Pearman, from Cumbria Police, said: "Sarah's family have been informed. Quite clearly they are very shocked, very distressed by this episode."

It is still uncertain why Ms McClay, from the Barrow-in-Furness area, had entered the tiger enclosure on Friday afternoon. Cumbria police said an elaborate enclosure system of gates should have meant the animals and their keepers remain apart at all times – but this system failed, with fatal consequences.

Detectives are now trying to establish whether this was due to a technical fault or human error.

Last night, however, the owner appeared to blame the keeper for the accident. Mr Gill said that Miss McClay had worked with big cats at the wildlife park for 15 months and was "very proficient", but on that day had appeared not to have followed safety procedures.

"The investigations that have taken place so far seem to have shown a tragic error of judgement and not following the safety protocols as they are written, and somehow or other managing to open up the tiger enclosure and walk straight in with the tigers. And, of course, the tigers take over then and instinct kicks in. That's how the tragedy happened," he said.

But Mr Gill's comments and his decision to reopen the animal park yesterday attracted criticism on the zoo's Facebook page.

Police refused to comment on his remarks last night, insisting their enquiries were continuing on behalf of the local coroner. They appealed for more witnesses to come forward, but said they were not treating the matter as a criminal investigation.