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Kayakers swept over weir to death

Two brothers and their cousin drowned after their kayaks were swept over a weir and they could not escape from the swirling water on the other side, a coroner has heard.

Darren Thorpe, 41, his brother Mark, 39, and Gavin Bradley, 36, were enjoying a day's paddling on the River Tyne near Hexham, Northumberland, in May.

Warning signs told people to leave the water upstream of a 200ft-wide weir at Riding Mill, but the three hard-working family men's bodies were found downstream of the feature, following a major search.

North Tyneside and South Northumberland coroner Eric Armstrong heard the men were not risk-takers and used common sense on previous trips along the river.

But the water level was higher than usual, and one likely scenario was that the men were swept over the weir before they knew it.

Canoe and white-water expert Robert Cunningham told the hearing in North Shields that 30 tonnes of water per second were flowing over the weir at the probable time the men were passing through.

Concrete blocks on the other side of the weir created a back flow which the men could not escape once they came off their sit-on kayaks.

Mr Cunningham said: "It was an absolutely impossible situation to be in in a kayak."

The buoyancy aids the men wore could not save them from the swirling, boiling current, he said.

The coroner recorded a verdict of accidental death.

The three men, who enjoyed the outdoors and were fit and healthy, set off from their homes in South Tyneside on the morning of Sunday May 11.

Their wives expected them home that evening and Mark's wife, Kerry, raised the alarm that night.

Police began an overnight search which involved two helicopters and the first of the three bodies was found in the river the next morning.

Detective Constable Nick Went, who led the investigation into the tragedy, said two witnesses saw three men kayaking on the Tyne on the Sunday morning, and this was likely to have been the men who drowned.

The walkers told police they looked happy, were chatting and appeared to be in control.

Expert witness Mr Cunningham said: "Unfortunately, they unwittingly ended up in a situation which they did not intend, it was out of their control, and it ended in tragedy."

The coroner said there were a lot of "unknowns", and it may have been that only one of the kayakers got swept away and the others went to help.

Mr Armstrong said: "I'm perfectly satisfied there was no bravado here.

"I'm sure, in their mind, they were out for a day of fun and no more than that."

The three men's widows, supported by other family members, attended the inquest.

In a statement after the hearing, they thanked those involved in the search operation.

"Since this tragic accident occurred, our lives have been completely turned upside down," they said.

"A part of us died that day, alongside our amazing husbands.

"We will never recover, or be the same again.

"Our lads would never have knowingly put themselves in danger.

"They were decent, hard-working family men, just wanting to enjoy the beauty and tranquility of the countryside on a much-deserved day off work.

"They were always sensible and had necessary equipment which included wetsuits, ropes, helmets and life jackets, all of which did nothing to help them on that day.

"We, their wives, were confident in the measures that they took, and in the ability they demonstrated whilst on their kayaks."

The family said the men could not have got away from the area downstream of the weir - known as a stopper - designed to prevent erosion.

"Although the weather was very pleasant and mild when they set off that morning, we do accept that the unusually high levels of water on that day may have contributed to them getting into difficulty and to be drawn into the path of the stopper, from which there was no escape," they said.

The family said a fourth man had died on the same stretch of water in the space of three years.

Andrew Weatherill, an amateur canoeist, drowned after going over the Riding Mill weir and getting trapped.

The family statement said: "Surely this needs to be acted upon, and we would plead that our requests for suitable changes be put in place."

The coroner called for a feasibility study to look at what could be done.

"The difficulty is that the river is a changing animal," he said. "One day it is calm, peaceful and thoroughly enjoyable.

"Add a bit of water - it doesn't sound like a lot - and it changes personality."

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