Deborah Orr : The hierarchy of modern tragedies

'The tiny increments by which we measure the progress of a life, finding it less precious as each month goes by, are worrying'
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The Independent Online

A beautiful little girl has lost her life on a school trip. Bunmi Shagaya, at 11 years old, was enjoying the first day of her first holiday abroad when somehow she slipped under the water, never to emerge alive. Early reports claimed that she could not swim but the suggestion was hotly contradicted by her uncle, Hammed Ajanaku.

A pair of lifeguards had been monitoring the crowded man-made beach near Dieppe, along with the teachers who were accompanying the schoolchildren on their trip. Investigations in France are now focusing on the teachers. A criminal prosecution can be brought in France if neglect is established.

While this story is tragic, it is not unfamiliar. Children do die on school trips. Children do drown. Last year two teenagers were swept away while river-walking in Stainford Beck, near Settle, in dreadful weather conditions. The year before, nine-year-old Elizabeth Bee died when she was trapped under the hull of a boat. The teacher responsible for her, Paul Dove, was blamed at the inquest, in a verdict of accidental death contributed to by neglect.

There can be little doubt that a particular teacher on this trip was charged with keeping an eye on Bunmi. Unfortunately, and in line with regulations laid down by the Department of Education, this person could have been responsible for looking after up to nine other children as well. This is a reasonable ratio on dry land but not necessarily in water.

And even so, such instructions are more easily arranged than carried out. Children love water but water has no feeling for children at all. A couple of minutes of distraction is all it takes, however tight the ratio of adults to children.

The dangers are well known, which is why it is so upsetting that this keeps happening. Every summer brings a clutch of stories, and sometimes it seems that there are more each year. In 1998, 36 children drowned in rivers. Last year it was 54. The figure sounds large, but in a national context whereby 43,000 children aged 14 and under are taken to accident and emergency departments every week, it is not staggering.

Plenty of these accidents involve water, not just rivers, lakes, canals and sea, but baths, buckets and garden water-features as well. On Wednesday an 18-month-old toddler from Teeside, Robbie Lambert, was rushed to hospital after falling into a garden pond. Staff could not revive him.

Last summer a toddler died after a far more unlucky chain of events, when he escaped from his parents' garden and found his way into a neighbour's basement, and died in their pool. In another horrific million-to-one chance last year, another toddler died when he drowned in a bin his mother had filled in order to wash it. Yet another died when he managed to climb over the garden fence and fall into an inadequately fenced-off canal.

These latter cases are ones which could not be foreseen, and for which no one can really be blamed. No doubt the parents blame themselves, in a litany of "what ifs" and "if onlys". For Bunmi's parents, things will not be like this.

They had surrendered their child into what should have been the safe custody of the people responsible for educating her. Something went wrong, something human and simple. Whoever feels most heavily the responsibility for this death will no doubt be suffering the most terrible of anguish. But the anguish, and the need to discover exactly how this happened, will be much greater for Bunmi's family. Because this fatal accident was so far out of their own control, the anger of their loss will surely be all the greater.

Perhaps it will be a comfort to them that Bunmi's death is seen as important, a national news story. Perhaps it will not. But the media attention has certainly been notable, and also a little unsettling. Bunmi, like Sarah Payne, was still at an age when, despite all the evidence, little girls are still seen as being far more vulnerable to abductors than drowning.

Bunmi's disappearance recalled that of 13-year-old Caroline Dickinson's in 1996. Also on a school trip to France, this child was killed by a sexual abductor. The possibility that this had happened again was quite definitely in the forefront of the minds of the French police and the British media. Both sets of people suddenly, for example, found it suspicious that a man was seen naked in his van near a swimming place. Am I the only person who can think of a perfectly innocent explanation for this? It is still possible that foul play has been a part of Bumni's story, but it appears less likely now than it did while she was still regarded only as missing.

Meanwhile, oddly, another missing girl, Danielle Jones, is not quite the headline news that Bunmi has been, even though she has been missing for 17 days now. She is older, and missing in Britain, having disappeared under her own steam, not under the supposed supervision of adults. But she is extremely likely to have been abducted. For some reason, though, the fate of Danielle Jones is not transfixing the media in the way that Sarah Payne's disappearance did, or Bunmi Shagaya's.

The anomalies in stories that are picked up and championed by the media and stories that are not are often strange. For example, a boy a few years older than Damilola Taylor was killed in London not long before the terrible murder in Peckham. But while Damilola's death has come quickly to represent a whole host of social problems and cultural failures, no one, including myself, can even remember this other child's name, if they ever heard it.

There is the horrible suggestion here that in our rush to idealise the innocence of childhood, we are getting things out of proportion. Can an 11-year-old's life be so much more valuable than a 15-year-old's? What is it that makes the cases of these two boys, or of these two girls, slightly different? In the case of Bunmi, there is the added difference that she died while abroad and under the care of teachers. Under the abduction theory, there were so many layers of blame. Now there is perhaps one fewer.

We do like a story in which someone else can be blamed, there's no doubt about that. But can our ideas about blame and about innocence be becoming disproportionate or hysterical? Further, as our picture of childhood becomes more idealised and more exclusive, does this make children more, rather than less, vulnerable to the more common dangers – like death by drowning – that lurk all around us, as we concentrate our interest on the possibility of children dying by design rather than by accident? None of this matters to the family of Bunmi Shagaya, for they have lost their child. But it ought to matter to the rest of us, because the tiny increments under which we appear to measure the progress of a life, a childhood, an adolescence, finding it less and less precious with each month that goes by, are worrying.

In Israel, deaths appear to be becoming utterly unremarkable to the watching world, unless, as is too often the case, young children are the victims. In Northern Ireland, the terrible death of the teenage Ciaran Cummings is discussed within a context whereby the biggest worry appears to be the possible disruption of the marching season.

Of course we feel most protective towards the youngest and most vulnerable of our citizens. Of course we can come to terms with the deaths of the very old more easily than with the deaths of the very young. But our hierarchy of tragedy is possibly becoming a little too severe to be helpful or meaningful. Any man's death diminishes us, after all. Not just any child's.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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