Coroner to write to council after Sunderland teenager dies in beach tragedy

Liam Hall
Liam Hall

A coroner is to write to council bosses about safety on a Sunderland beach after a teenager's death.

Seventeen-year-old Liam Hall, from Southwick, died in Newcastle’s Freeman Hospital after he and three friends got into trouble off Roker beach in August last year.

Sarah Hall

Sarah Hall

Now Newcastle coroner Karen Dilks is to write to Sunderland City Council bosses over arrangements at Roker Beach.

An inquest at Newcastle Civic Centre today heard Liam had gone to the beach with friends Jack Hanratty, Natalie Foster and Courtney Richardson.

Det Sgt David Henderson told the hearing the four had gone out in a small inflatable dinghy but soon got into trouble.

As the dinghy started to take on water, the two boys had jumped into the sea in an effort to get the boat back to shore.

Emergency services at the scene

Emergency services at the scene

“Jack was the first to jump into the water. He was shortly followed by Liam. They believed they were going to try to get the dinghy back to the shore, so it would not take in as much water.”

The water had been very cold and Liam began to struggle. Jack had seen him start to go underwater.

"He started screaming, asking for help almost immediately he went into the water," said DS Henderson.

Several people in the area had attempted to help, including one who had thrown a lifebelt to Jack Hanratty so he could be pulled to safety.

The police helicopter took part in the rescue operation

The police helicopter took part in the rescue operation

Liam was eventually rescued and flown to the RVI before being transferred to the Freeman.

Asked "Did your inquiries confirm whether there were any lifeguards on the beach that day?", DS Henderson replied: "No."

Asked "Are there any warning signs saying there is not a lifeguard available? ", he said: "Not that I know of."

Liam's mum Sarah told the hearing he had not been a strong swimmer: "He would be alright in a swimming baths but not in a situation like that."

Floral tributes on Roker seafront

Floral tributes on Roker seafront

She told the inquest she went to Roker regularly to walk her dog and asked if she had ever seen a lifeguard, replied: "Not on that part of the beach."

Recording a conclusion of accidental death, the coroner said she would be writing to the city council about the situation regarding lifeguards and warning signs at Roker.

"I have heard from both Liam's mum and Detective Sergeant Henderson that the area is an area that is well used. Mum tells me it has a play area, it has eating facilities and access to the water is not in any way restricted and that there are no signs, no lifeguards, and nothing warning the public about not entering the water at that point," she said.

"It seems to me that is something that needs to be rectified if we are to prevent deaths in future."

No-one from the RNLI or the city council gave evidence.

Speaking afterwards, council leader Coun Paul Watson said there had been lifeguard cover on the beach at the time of the incident: "As a city by the sea, water safety is a priority for us which is why we have lifeguards and extensive water safety signage at three beaches including Roker, operating seven days a week from May to September, with patrols of up to nine lifeguards on duty from 10am– 6pm each day. Some of those lifeguards were involved in the efforts to rescue Liam on the day.

Coun Paul Watson

Coun Paul Watson

"The council has worked very closely with the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution) and the Royal Lifesaving Society and ROSPA (The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents) for a number of years now to raise awareness of the dangers of swimming in open water with an annual water safety programme.

"This includes water safety lessons to more than 150,000 children in schools since 1994 and practical water safety sessions all of which are delivered by the RNLI.

"We also have a boat patrolling the River Wear from the river mouth to Fatfield from Easter to September every weekend, school holidays and public holidays, from 11am to 7pm, giving safety advice and guidance to water users including those with inflatables.

"As well as extensive signage and water safety messages there is also public rescue equipment which is checked regularly along the seafront including Roker, Seaburn and Harbour Beaches, Cat and Dog Promenade and Roker Pier.

"But we will of course look closely at the Coroner’s letter when we receive it to see if there are any additional measures that need to be taken.

"The seaside is a wonderful place to enjoy and we never want to stop people from doing that, but Liam’s tragic death is a very sad reminder of the need for all of us to take extra care near stretches of open water."

An RNLI spokeswoman said: "The RNLI’s national drowning prevention campaign, Respect the Water, is calling on the public to fight their instincts to thrash about or swim if they get into trouble in the water.

"Instead, float first, rest and recover until cold water shock passes. This allows time to catch your breath before trying to swim to safety or call for help.

"For anyone planning to go into the water, the best way to stay safe is to choose a lifeguarded beach and swim between the red and yellow flags, which is the area most closely monitored by the lifeguards.

"If you see someone else in danger in the water, fight your instinct to go in and try to rescue them yourself – call 999 and ask for the Coastguard."

Conclusion: ACCIDENT.

*Speaking after the hearing, Sarah Hall paid tribute to her son for his efforts to save the girls in the dinghy and said she was not surprised Liam had gone into the water in an effort to protect them: "That is the type of lad he was," she said.

"I know he would have been trying to help.

"He was a joker - he cared about everybody. He put his on life at risk. He thought of the girls."

Mrs Hall said she would like to see a greater emphasis on water safety in schools.

"My little girl is in Year Four and she has been taught survival. She is only nine, but I have spoken to people who have been through comprehensive school and have not been taught anything."

She said she was still in close contact with Jack Hanratty, who had been Liam's best friend.

"They were like two peas in a pod," she said.

"Everywhere they went, they went together."