There were fears last night for the life of a young woman trapped by a landslide on a Dorset beach that sent an estimated 400 tons of rock and mud crashing down on to the sand below.
A 20 metre-wide section of the cliff-face rising above the coastal path at Burton Bradstock, a small town near Bridport, collapsed from heights of up to 50 metres around midday yesterday.The victim was said to be a 23-year-old woman, with reports that her boyfriend and his father had also been trapped by the landslide but were able to free themselves before being taken to hospital.
Officers from Dorset Police were joined by the local fire service, coastguard and an air ambulance as sniffer dogs, heat-seaking sensors and a police helicopter were called in to help the rescue effort on Hive Beach.
Heavy-lifting equipment was also brought in to help move the rubble, which left a large mound at the bottom of the cliff. The operation was hindered by the possibility of a further rockfall, but rescuers said the search would continue through the night.
Dorset County Council warned only last week of the chance a landslide could occur nearby, with rocks at the western end of West Bay Esplande said to be "ready to fall".
"Some of these have already broken free and are perched on other overhanging rocks," it said in a statement. "There is a large amount of fresh rock-fall debris on the sloping section of the cliff. Some of this looks unstable."
The British Geological Survey echoed this warning last night, saying holidaymakers and day trippers should avoid sitting or walking at the base of potentially unstable cliffs.
The recent weeks of exceptionally heavy rain have led to a "heightened hazard" of cliff falls, as water pressure has built up within slopes, the BGS said. People should watch for signs of instability, such as recent rock falls which may be a different colour from weathered cliff faces, or cracks in cliff tops, said David Boon of the BGS landslide response team.The BGS has received reports of 13 "disruptive landslides" across Britain in the past month.