The four women – mother, two aunts and a cousin – supported each other down the lakeside, to the miniature, artificial beach. Their wailing could be heard across the quiet, mirror-still Lac de Caniel, at Cany-Barville, near Dieppe.
"My baby, my baby," screamed Salimata Shagaya, whose British schoolgirl daughter, Bunmi, 11, had just been pulled from the water, three days after she disappeared on a school trip to France.
"Her spirit is in the water," came another anguished cry. While Mrs Shagaya, from Brixton, south London, collapsed against a police vehicle, her aunts paced the sand and threw up their arms in disbelief.
Bunmi had vanished on this tiny piece of beach, by a small stretch of lake, roped off for supervised swimming, despite the presence of two of her teachers, two local lifeguards and 300 bathers. When Bunmi resurfaced yesterday, she was found in the shallowest part of the roped pool – just a few feet deep – only yards from where she was last seen.
The police had allowed other children to keep swimming in that stretch of water during the search. Disbelief came laced with anger. "Why did this have to happen?" cried one aunt, swivelling round on the police officers.
Later Lieutenant-Colonel Gabriel de Boisseson, in charge of the French police search, shared the family's confusion. "It [the drowning] is not usual and not normal," he said. Joseph Schmitt, the prosecutor in Rouen, is now considering a criminal investigation. Lt-Col Boisseson said supervision of the children would be scrutinised, and charges might follow. He hinted that one of the lake's lifeguards had provided important information but refused to say more.
The local time was 9.35am yesterday when Bunmi, still wearing her blue swimsuit, and a gold chain around her throat, was lifted from the water by five police divers. Her body had been spotted by a park employee or a French police officer – accounts conflict – from the shore.
The recovery of the little girl, always feared drowned or abducted, was conducted in near silence. To negotiate her release from the thick, green weeds that reach up from the lake's floor into its opaque, warm waters took more than an hour.
Only journalists and a few locals watched from a distance as divers brought Bunmi, on her first overseas trip, back on to the sand where she had so recently played with some of the 40 school friends on holiday from Hillmead Primary School, Brixton. She returned wrapped in a body bag.
Lt-Col Boisseson said later that he did not believe that Bunmi's body had been in the roped-off swimming area on Wednesday when it was full of swimmers. He thought it had floated ashore after the lake was churned up by a reed cutter used by divers.
Asked why he had not closed the lake during the search, and had allowed children to swim in the area in which Bunmi went missing, Lt-Col Boisseson said he had not considered closure necessary. He said he had been aware that her body might float to the surface, and have a traumatic effect, particularly on children.
Bunmi's school friends returned to Britain in the early hours of yesterday morning. Bunmi disappeared on the first full day of their holiday. They spent the rest of the week being questioned by police. At 5.30am, the children walked in sombre silence from their bus into their school, followed by six teachers.
Robert Blower, a spokesman for Lambeth council, said staff were "devastated". The children had "shed a few tears" and asked for news about Bunmi.
Mr Blower revealed the school had not checked which children could swim before leaving England. "This was a trip to give the children a flavour of French life," he said. "There was not supposed to be any risk."
Bunmi's body was found half an hour before Hillmead's classes started. One teacher collapsed when she heard the bad news. Mothers gathered at the school started to weep. Paulette Davis, whose daughter was on the trip, said: "Oh God, it is terrible news. All our prayers were in vain."
Parents were demanding to know how the tragedy happened. Questions were also raised over why it took so long to find the body and why people were allowed to swim in the lake while the search continued.
Last night Lambeth council officials were considering asking for an independent inquiry into teacher supervision levels.Reuse content