Murder in paradise? Witness says death of British sailor in St Vincent was an accident

Police are treating death of yachtsman found floating in water after boat fire as suspicious

A diving instructor has told how she raced to the scene of a ferocious fire on board a yacht in the Caribbean and found its British owner floating fatally wounded nearby.

Police in St Vincent and the Grenadines have launched a murder investigation after John Garner, 53, a former special forces instructor, was found with severe injuries to his head and legs. Officers said they also wanted to talk to the Briton's Norwegian wife, Heidi Hukkelaas, in connection with the incident on Wednesday afternoon.

But Kay Wilson, a professional diver who has lived in the Caribbean for 12 years, said the scene that greeted her when she and crew members spotted smoke from Mr Garner's 49ft yacht, Asante, looked like the aftermath of an accident, possibly caused by an exploding gas canister.

She said: "My initial impression was that it was an accident. There is the fact that it had happened around lunchtime and there was an explosion on board.

"The injuries this person had was, from my perspective, that something had exploded in his face and he had injuries to his face and leg. I did not see any defensive wounds or anything that would suggest that there was foul play."

The dive instructor added the fact that an attempt had been made to inflate the yacht's life raft and Mr Garner's documents including his passport had been recovered in a waterproof bag reinforced the theory of an accident.

Ms Wilson, who is originally from Bristol, said the Asante, registered in Gibraltar, had been "razed to the water line" by the fire that engulfed it and Mr Garner, who had lived for many years in Norway, had been found floating about 150m away wearing a self-inflating lifejacket.

She said: "We could tell that he had injuries but it was not until our diver got in the water and approached him we could see the injuries and lacerations to his leg and he was very pale. To all intents and purposes, there was nothing they could do for him."

Mr Garner, who was found 15 miles off the coastal resort of Buccament on St Vincent, had been offering yachting lessons and sailing trips around the British Virgin Islands for up to £9,000 since arriving in the Caribbean in January with his wife.

Police said they were treating the incident as suspicious and were looking at "all lines of inquiry". Michael Charles, St Vincent police commissioner, said: "We suspect foul play and will investigate the matter fully. Miss Hukkelaas is a person of interest and as with every murder investigation we have to look at everyone and everything and will leave no stones unturned."

Detectives, who added that Mr Garner had been on medication, said there were no records of Miss Hukkelaas having left the islands. But friends said she had departed two days before the death of Mr Garner to return to her native Norway to look after her children.  The couple had recently been granted permission to extend their stay in St Vincent until 19 April.

Mr Garner's daughter, Elisabeth, 37, said her family were unaware that her father's death was being treated as suspicious. She said: "This is a shock for everybody. We have not been told that this is being treated as suspicious. As far as we have been told, it is being treated as a tragic accident."