Belfast Telegraph

Father-of-two who died trying to save drowning boy 'should be given bravery award'

A father of two who died in a vain bid to save a drowning boy in a disused quarry should be recognised with a posthumous bravery award, a coroner has recommended.

Local government worker Colin Polland, 39, who was originally from Co Down but lived in Ilford, Essex, drowned after jumping into the remote water hole near the Northern Ireland coast in a effort to save 15-year-old Kevin O'Hare, from Dromara, Co Down.

An inquest into the two deaths heard how his widow Adele Polland swam out into the cold water when her husband disappeared below the surface but was unable to get deep enough to reach him.

Mrs Polland said she was forced to swim back to land because the coldness was starting to overcome her.

"I made a decision that I did not want my children to lose two parents," she stated.

At the hearing into June's tragedy near the Co Down seaside village of Annalong, Northern Ireland's Senior Coroner John Leckey praised the actions of Mr and Mrs Polland, who had been visiting a nearby cottage when they responded to calls for help, and of two police officers who also entered the water at Paul's Quarry to try to save the victims.

"Colin Polland lost his life heroically trying to save the life of Kevin O'Hare," said Mr Leckey.

"I would recommend that his bravery is recognised posthumously in some way."

Mr Leckey said he would also write to Stormont's Minister for the Environment Mark H Durkan, Newry and Mourne District Council and the owner of the quarry to see what action could be taken to improve safety, as he was concerned of the potential for another drowning tragedy.

The coroner's court in Belfast earlier witnessed emotional scenes as Kevin's mother Donna Marie challenged his cousin to explain why he had taken him up to the quarry on the day of the incident, when she understood they were only going to the holiday town of Newcastle.

"My son came home in a coffin," Mrs O'Hare said as she questioned Philip McGrillen from the public gallery.

Kevin, his 17-year-old brother Liam, and Mr McGrillen, 24 - the boys' second cousin - drove up to the secluded quarry after spending what was a sunny afternoon in nearby Newcastle playing pool, visiting amusement arcades and eating ice cream.

Mr McGrillen told the court that he and Kevin, a pupil at St Malachy's High School in Castlewellan, Co Down, decided to go for a swim on the spur of the moment, with Liam opting out because he could not swim.

He recalled that after both stripped down to their boxer shorts he jumped in first and had got out of the water again when his young cousin, a talented footballer, also jumped in.

"When Kevin jumped into the water and resurfaced he was panicking big time," he stated.

The air conditioning engineer from Dromara, who said he warned his cousin to expect the water to be cold, said Kevin was around 6ft from the edge of the quarry.

"His arms were all over the place, I could tell he was in difficulty. He was shouting 'Philip, help me," he added in a statement read to court.

Mr McGrillen swam out to his cousin but said he could not grab him.

"I could not get hold of him, he was thrashing back with his arms," he said.

He said exhaustion had started to hit him and he returned to the edge of the water. As Mr McGrillen was trying to save Kevin, Liam O'Hare had run off to find help and had encountered Mr and Mrs Polland. The couple were back in Northern Ireland on holiday visiting relatives.

After Mr Leckey had questioned Mr McGrillen about the incident, Kevin's mother spoke from her seat in the public gallery.

"Why did he take him there?" she asked.

"Why? I just want to know why - when he promised he was coming straight back from Newcastle?"

Asked to respond by Mr Leckey, Mr McGrillen said: "We just decided to go up to it. We didn't plan to go up from the outset."

He agreed when the coroner asked him was it a "spur-of-the-moment" decision to go for a swim.

Mrs Polland then took to the witness stand and recounted how a teenager (Liam O'Hare) had run up to the cottage shouting for help.

She said her husband had reached the water first and she had watched on from above the quarry as he tried to save the boy.

Mr McGrillen had described how Mr Polland, who had also stripped down before entering, had attempted to reach Kevin but then started to get into difficulties himself.

"The man was really struggling," he said.

"You could tell by the look on his face he was gasping for air. He went down into the water."

When Mr Polland disappeared from view, his wife swam out to where he had been - there she could see him below her.

"I tried to reach down with my feet but I couldn't reach Colin," she stated.

"I couldn't dive so I couldn't reach Colin."

Mrs Polland described the debilitating effects of the cold water.

"I felt a lot of pressure around my lungs, felt myself starting to have difficulty breathing. (It happened) very quickly when I got to the deep, coldest part of the water."

Mr Leckey assured Mrs Polland that she had made the correct decision swimming back to land.

"If you hadn't got of the water when you had, this would be an inquest into a triple drowning tragedy, I have absolutely no doubt about that," he said.

Deputy State Pathologist Dr Alastair Bentley, who confirmed both victims had died as a result of drowning, said the coldness of water would have played a significant factor.

"I would say in this case it played a very great role," he said.

Police witnesses told the court how four officers responded to a 999 call and when they reached the site, two of them stripped down and tried to dive down and reach the two submerged bodies.

Questioning Sargent Kelly Warnock about the officers' actions, Mr Leckey asked whether in hindsight they should have entered the water without appropriate safety equipment.

She replied: "Hindsight is a wonderful thing. As well as being police officers, they were human beings and it would have been very difficult to do nothing. They tried their best."

The officers were also unable to dive deep enough to reach the two victims. Police divers eventually recovered the bodies around three hours after the tragedy had unfolded.

Mr Leckey asked Ms Warnock if the police could take on the issue of awarding a posthumous bravery honour to Mr Polland.

Kevin's father Eugene O'Hare earlier told the court that his youngest of four sons loved Gaelic games.

"Kevin lived for football," he said.

In a statement read to court, he described the special relationship he had with his mother, before recounting the last time they saw him as he drove off with his brother and cousin.

"He gave his mother a kiss and cuddle and said he was away to Newcastle, he said 'Right Dad, I'm away'. That was the last time I saw him alive."

Mr Leckey then asked a tearful Mr O'Hare what he would want to see done with the quarry.

"I think it should be filled in, or closed down or something," he said.

"I don't see the use of them, why are they there? Why's the hazard there to the public?"

While the quarry was on private property - it is owned by a relation of the Pollands - the court heard that people often gained unauthorised access for swimming. The court was told that over the years previously erected gates and warning signs had been vandalised and thrown into the water.

There was no danger sign visible when the incident unfolded.

Ms Warnock also told Mr Leckey there had been reports of young people drinking at the quarry, which has been disused and water-filled since 1949.

Mr Bentley had earlier outlined that neither victim had any alcohol in their system when they died.

Mrs Polland said she was not in favour of the quarry being filled in and would rather see more emphasis placed on a proactive campaign to educate young people to the dangers of swimming in such places.

The coroner noted suggestions of putting dye into quarries in a bid to discourage people from swimming there.

But Mr O'Hare said that move would not work at the quarry where his son died, as a natural spring would result in the dye flowing away.

Mr Leckey ruled that both victims died from drowning.

 

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