Camber Sands drowning of seven men due to misadventure, rules coroner

Senior coroner Alan Craze said it was 'not known' whether deploying lifeguards would have prevented the deaths

Tom Pugh
Friday 30 June 2017 15:01
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Coastal officers drive towards a beach patrol tent on Camber Sands
Coastal officers drive towards a beach patrol tent on Camber Sands

The drowning deaths of seven men, including five young friends, at a popular south coast beach last summer were through misadventure, a coroner concluded.

Tragedy struck as Mohit Dupar, 36, tried to reach Brazilian Gustavo Silva Da Cruz, 19, as he got into difficulty at Camber Sands, near Rye, East Sussex, last July 24 - but both died.

A month later, five young friends, who all lived in the London area, were of Sri Lankan origin and aged 18 to 27, drowned at the same beach after being seen playing volleyball in the sea last August 24.

Nine deaths occurred at Camber in the four years from 2012 - including the seven last summer. But lifeguards were not deployed until after the five deaths last August, despite recommendations from the RNLI to employ them three years earlier.

Recording his conclusions following a five-day inquest in Hastings, East Sussex, senior coroner Alan Craze said it was "not known" whether deploying lifeguards would have prevented the deaths.

Mr Craze said: "The RNLI had recommended, amongst other measures, deploying lifeguards at the beach in 2013 but this had not happened. Of course, it is not known whether such a step would have prevented the deaths, but it has now been implemented."

The five friends who died last August 24 were Kenugen Saththiyanathan, 18, known as Ken, and his brother Kobikanthan Saththiyanathan, 22, known as Kobi, both of Normandy Way, Erith, south-east London, and their friends Nitharsan Ravi, 22, of Admaston Road, Plumstead, south-east London, Inthushan Sriskantharasa, 23, of Chadwell Road, Grays, Essex, and Gurushanth Srithavarajah, 27, of Elsa Road, Welling, south-east London.

The inquest heard the five men were all fit, healthy and competent swimmers when they died on a sunny day but beneath the surface at Camber Sands lurked "hidden dangers".

Although rip currents were not believed responsible, Camber has sandbars that can catch people out when the tide comes in rapidly, sometimes causing people to wade through water to reach shore, the inquest heard.

Oceanographer Dr Simon Boxall believed the five men got into trouble after heading out to a sandbar to play ball a significant distance out at sea, and then got caught out.

Amid a fast incoming tide, it appeared the men may have panicked trying to help one of their friends and then got into trouble as they tried to get back to shore.

Dr Boxall, a senior lecturer at the University of Southampton, said there also would have been strong currents which would have had a significant impact even on a strong swimmer.

As the men were far out at sea, he said he doubted whether anyone would have seen them from shore, particularly with glare facing people looking out to the water.

Beach-goer, Stephen Deacon, told the inquest he felt "unnerved" by the underwater sea conditions on the day the five friends drowned at the beach, which can attract up to 30,000 visitors peak season.

The surface of the sea appeared calm but underwater, the strong current pushed him in and out as he pulled a dinghy with three children inside at sea, he said.

Mr Deacon said he would not have gone to the beach had he known what the conditions would be like.

He said: "It made me feel uncomfortable. It was pushing me in and out.

"It was like I couldn't control my own body. The top seemed calm but below it was different."

He added there were "lots of pockets of shallow and deep holes", and went on: "You couldn't tell when these pockets would appear."

Mr Deacon said he saw no warning notices about the nature of the sands, and no flag flying.

The only warning he saw was about the possibility of jellyfish, he said.

​Tristan Cawte, manager of the Camber Kitesurf Centre, said the sandbars were not dangerous on their own but people, particularly weak swimmers, could quickly find themselves waist or shoulder deep in water.

He said: "On a busy weekend, as the tide comes in and people are sun-bathing on a sandbar, they can be completely unaware that water is coming in.

"And so there can be 20 or 30 people on a sandbar and then they have to wade through water to get back onto the beach."

On the day of the five deaths, Mr Cawte said the water looked "about as safe and inviting" as you would see at Camber without considering the tide and water movement.

Prior to the seven deaths last summer, Camber had no lifeguards.

Instead, the area was manned by beach patrol staff whose tasks included reuniting lost children with their parents and dealing with lost property.

But three years before last summer's seven deaths, the RNLI had offered to deploy lifeguards following a risk assessment after the death of Tanzeela Ajmal, 31, in 2012 and a number of near misses, the inquest was told.

The RNLI also offered to provide lifeguards at Camber in 2009.

In 2015, beach-goer Thatchayiny Segar drowned at Camber.

But lifeguards were not introduced until after the seven men, including the five friends, drowned last summer.

Dr Anthony Leonard, executive director at Rother District Council, defended the decision not to employ lifeguards following the 2013 risk assessment.

He said the authority's decision had to be balanced against other factors known at the time and that, with statutory obligations to fund, it did not have a "bottomless pit" of money.

And up until 2012, Camber had relatively few incidents since Rother District Council took over responsibility for the beach in 1974, Dr Leonard added.

The inquest also heard that following the deaths of Mr Dupar and Mr Da Cruz last July, Rother District Council asked the RNLI to provide lifeguards but the charity was unable to spare resources at such short notice at the height of the summer season.

Following calls for improved safety, Rother District Council agreed in February this year to allocate £51,000 in its 2017/18 budget for seasonal lifeguard cover this summer at Camber.

Robert Cass, a coastal officer, said there had been a rise in the level of naivety about personal safety among beach-goers at Camber in recent years amid a changing demographic.

When he started in 2004, the demographic was predominantly "white British" people who stayed in the nearby Pontins holiday park or at caravan sites, he said.

But in more recent years he pointed to large groups of people from ethnic communities flocking to the beach from the capital, causing beach staff to take "adaptive measures".

He also spoke of the chaos as news spread of bodies found in the sea last August.

He said: "There were tides, about 25,000 people, scenes of trauma and tragedy, mums were losing their children. It was a worst case scenario."

Mr Cass said it was important for people to be educated about beach safety before they arrive, and pointed to the value of having an electronic matrix sign at Camber urging people not to go into the sea if they cannot swim.

But he also said pre-emptive measures might not prevent another tragedy at Camber, which is three miles (4.8km) long and nearly half-a-mile (700m) wide at low tide.

Professor David Ball, professor of risk management at Middlesex University, said there was a one in a million risk of drowning and that Camber was a very safe beach.

Mr Craze said he would sending off a prevention of future deaths letter to figures, including the Transport Secretary, highlighting concerns including over the control of risk assessments.

The inquest had heard that there was no legal requirement for Rother District Council to follow through with recommendations contained in risk assessments by the RNLI.

Consultant forensic pathologist Dr Brett Lockyer recorded a cause of death of immersion (drowning) for all five victims who died last August.

Arumukam Saththiyanathan, the father of Ken and Kobi, said in a statement to the inquest that they had "good swimming ability" and their Sri Lankan village was surrounded by three big rivers.

He said his sons swam in Sri Lanka almost every weekend, including at a Hindu temple, before they came to the UK when the brothers were aged 10 and 14 in July 2008.

Mr Saththiyanathan, who arrived in the UK earlier than the boys in 1999, went on: "As a family, we went to the beaches in the UK nearly every summer and the boys went without us sometimes."

He added that University of Brighton business studies student Kobi, who was on a gap year before returning to his studies, loved Camber Sands and had visited there three times in 2016 before his death.

The brothers' mother Jegaleela Saththiyanathan said both were "physically fit" with no physical conditions, adding that they played sport at a district level in Sri Lanka.

Mr Ravi's father Nagaratnam said in a statement that his "fit and healthy" son, a University of Brighton aeronautical engineering student, was a "competent swimmer" who could swim 100m easily.

He said the family would go to beaches every year, including to Margate, the Isle of Wight and Spain.

He went on: "He was accustomed to swimming. A group of 15 or 16 would go on swimming trips."

The inquest heard the day before he died, Mr Ravi was admitted to hospital with a head injury after allegedly being assaulted as he dispersed a group of teenagers from his family's shop four days earlier.

He reported feeling dizzy and confused but a CT scan found no abnormalities and he was discharged with advice to return if his symptoms persisted.

Mr Sriskantharasa, a Tesco shift manager, fled conflict in Sri Lanka where he witnessed his mother die in a shelling in 2009.

His father died from a brain haemorrhage in 2002.

He was on a day off from work on the day he died at Camber alongside his friends.

His uncle Sivapragasan Thavarasa said he had seen him swimming in the sea, describing him as a "very able swimmer".

Inthushan had been to Camber previously and, although had not undergone swimming training, he had been informally tutored by his Sri Lankan elders.

The inquest heard that Gurushanth Srithavarajah was a student and part-time Tesco shop assistant who spent the first 12 years of his life living near the sea in Sri Lanka.

His sister Kabinuja Srithavarajah said he was a competent swimmer.

She said: "The five friends were used to packing up and driving to the coast on a regular basis.

"They normally decided where they were going when they met up."

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