Father in holiday drowning denies manslaughter

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The Independent Online

An engineer charged with manslaughter over a boating accident in which a headmaster and his two sons drowned told an Italian court yesterday how the holiday group spent more than 12 hours in the water trying to survive.

John Lilley, 46, from Aberdeen, had hired a motorboat on Lake Garda in northern Italy with his two children and four members of a family whom they had met on the holiday in August 1998.

Richard Harris, 50, a headmaster from Renhold, Bedfordshire, and his sons Timothy, 13, and Luke, six, died after the boat overturned in a freak storm. Mr Lilley and his children, Andrew, 17, and Alison, 16, survived, as did Catherine Harris, the mother of the dead youngsters.

Italian police were alerted about the incident in the early evening, but failed to respond until the following morning.

Mr Lilley, who was initially hailed as a hero for his attempts to save those who died, was charged with manslaughter because under Italian law he is regarded as captain of the boat, since it was his passport that had been used to hire it. If convicted he could be jailed for up to 12 years. Two boat hirers and a number of police officers face charges of manslaughter and negligence.

Yesterday Mr Lilley told a court in Brescia, which is near the lake, how their boat was hit by two large waves and capsized about a kilometre from the shore. They all held on to each other in the water.

"We stayed in this position for two hours. At 7 o'clock a very large wave crashed right on to the boat and I lost my grip.

"When we managed to surface, we had been washed apart and regrouped. Mr Harris was nowhere to be seen. I looked and saw him floating on his back, maybe 50 metres away."

Describing his efforts to save Luke, Mr Lilley said: "Because he was the smallest, he was very cold, and at times he would try to get away from me. The last hours were very desperate ... he became very still, but he was still breathing. I had him close to my chest, and realised he had stopped breathing." Mrs Harris is reported to believe that Mr Lilley is being made a scapegoat for errors by the Italian authorities.

Mr Lilley's wife, Jane, raised the alarm when the party failed to return, but no rescue operation was launched until the next morning and the survivors were found only when spotted by a passing vessel.

The case continues.