A couple killed themselves by jumping to their deaths from a notorious suicide spot with the body of their five-year-old boy in a closed rucksack. The parents were said to have been unable to come to terms with their son's death, believed to be the result of an illness.
The bodies of the adults were spotted at the base of the Beachy Head cliff, near Eastbourne, East Sussex, about 8pm on Sunday but Coastguard climbers had to wait until yesterday to recover them. When the emergency workers reached a ledge 400ft from the top of the cliff, they found the bag containing the body of the boy. A second bag containing toys, including a tractor and teddy bears, was found nearby.
Stuart McNab, the Eastbourne Coastguard station manager, who was one of the first to reach the scene, said: "The cliff is about a 500ft drop but they had fallen 400ft on to a ledge near the bottom. Our experience is that people who have gone down that sort of distance at that particular location would not have survived.
"I went down myself as the cliff man on a harness and I immediately identified a woman and a man. I had a cursory look around and there were two rucksacks. They were both closed and they were near the male and female bodies. I opened the top of one and looked in. I saw what I thought was a doll's head, but on closer examination it was a child."
Crime officers were sent to examine the bodies before the they were winched from the ledge and taken away. Sussex Police said they were not releasing the names of the victims before a post mortem examination takes place but it is understood they were members of the same family.
A VW caravanette belonging to the family, which had a wheelchair lift in the back, was towed away from a car park close to the clifftop. The registration plate was not from the Sussex area.
Chief Inspector Dick Coates, from Sussex Police, said: "It would appear that this a tragic accident. We are not treating the deaths as suspicious. We have not ruled anything out at the moment but the possibility of suicide is obviously part of our investigation." The dramatic chalk cliffs at Beachy Head are a renowned beauty spot frequented by walkers and nature lovers. But the area has also long been associated with suicide attempts, accounting for about 20 lives each year. Recorded instances of people jumping from the cliff date back to 1600.
A telephone box was installed near the clifftop in 1976 with the contact details for the Samaritans in Eastbourne and a national helpline. In 2004, a new service was set up to enable direct intervention to try and dissuade anyone threatening to take their life.
The Beachy Head chaplaincy team, made up of local church members, patrols the cliff area and operates an on-call rota to offer counselling. Chaplain Ross Hardy said: "We did not see the family on our routine patrols or hear any reports of anyone acting suspiciously before the bodies were spotted. Our normal role is preventative. We talk to people and try to bring them back from the cliff."
His team intervenes between 15 and 30 times a year to stop people jumping.
The latest tragedy brought calls for an increase in patrols around the area.
Keith Lane began walking along the clifftop looking for people who seemed suicidal after his wife killed herself at Beachy Head in 2004. He saved 29 lives before giving up the walks last year.
He said: "It's such a tragic thing to have happened. I know what it is like to go through what the families are and I feel desperately sorry for them. I am thinking of starting my patrols again up there because there clearly is not enough cover there at the moment."