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Triple-death tragedy Cornish beach 'should have been red-flagged'

Published 17/08/2015

The coastguard and police carried out a rescue operation when four children and three adults got into difficulty at Mawgan Porth beach in Cornwall (Screengrab/PA)
The coastguard and police carried out a rescue operation when four children and three adults got into difficulty at Mawgan Porth beach in Cornwall (Screengrab/PA)

A half-term family surfing holiday turned to tragedy within minutes and claimed the lives of three people including a renowned knee surgeon, an inquest heard today.

Stuart Calder, 52, was on a break with his wife Clare, two of their four children and other relatives at their holiday home near the popular surfing resort of Newquay, Cornwall.

The well-respected orthopaedic surgeon drowned after getting caught in a powerful rip current and being dragged out to sea, which witnesses said developed in just 15 minutes.

Mr Calder was attempting to save his sons Hugo and Milo who were trying to help two teenage brothers who got into difficulty while swimming among the strong waves during last October's school half-term holiday.

The doctor, who worked at Leeds Teaching Hospitals, drowned alongside Rachel Dunn, 42, and her partner Kevin Reynolds, 44, in last October's tragedy at Mawgan Porth beach.

Cornwall Coroner's Court heard there were seven people involved in the rescue - Mr Calder, Mr Reynolds and Ms Dunn - as well as Mr Calder's sons and brothers William and Gethin Robson.

Members of the public who were on the beach risked their lives to go into the water to help those in trouble.

But some experienced surfers told the hearing that the sea current was too strong that day and the water should have been closed off from the public.

Lifeguards were not patrolling the beach when the incident took place, as they only do so between March and September.

The RNLI, coastguard, police, ambulance service, air ambulance and a Royal Navy search and rescue helicopter were all involved in the rescue.

Mr Calder and Ms Dunn were rescued by members of the public while Mr Reynolds was later pulled from the sea by a helicopter crew. Passers-by carried out CPR on Mr Calder and Ms Dunn until paramedics arrived.

All three were unconscious and were airlifted to the Royal Cornwall Hospital in Treliske but later pronounced dead. Post-mortem examinations found all three had drowned.

Holidaymaker Brendan Prince, an experienced lifeguard and surfer, told the hearing how the conditions became hazardous within 15 minutes and he refused to go into the sea because he felt it was too dangerous.

He described seeing about a dozen people in the water but noted there were "no serious surfers" in the sea or any lifeguards on duty.

"If you grow up knowing these conditions they are blindingly obvious," he said. "But if you don't you can be taken by them.

"If there was a lifeguard service on duty they would not have allowed people into the water. I personally feel on that day the beach would have been red flagged."

In a written statement Hugo Calder described how the tragedy unfolded from 1pm on October 26, saying when he entered the water - with his father remaining on the beach in his wetsuit because he had a sore back - he was not aware of any warning signs.

"I surfed with my brother Milo for about 20 minutes with nothing out of the ordinary happening," the experienced surfer, who is on a gap year before university, said.

"The first thing that I remember happening that was unusual then happened.

"I became aware of a girl aged about 15 asking me to help her because she had difficulty getting back to the shore. I was able to hold her and I got her to the shallow water and she walked to the shore."

The teenager said he then saw his brother helping Gethin Robson and his sibling was waving at him to help William Robson, who was also in trouble.

"There were waves crashing in on this boy and he also seemed to be signalling to me. I moved towards him on my board and as I got near him I could hear him shouting for help," he said.

"I managed to get too him without too much difficulty. He grabbed my board and we started to try and head towards the shore."

Mr Calder said that he then saw Kevin Reynolds struggling in the water and he too grabbed the surf board - making it even harder to paddle to the shore.

"I then saw my dad and he was trying to swim towards me. He was fighting the waves and looked panicky and was shouting for help," he said.

"I left the two other people holding onto my board and swam towards him. I reached him and we both managed to get back to my board.

"There were now four of us holding onto the board. We tried to swim back to the shore but we were getting thrown around and hit by the waves and the board was sinking a bit.

"We caught up with Milo and I moved over to his board so there would be three on each. I looked back to see where my dad was and could see all three had fallen off.

"All of a sudden my board flew past is with no one on it. I felt something terrible had happened.

"The next thing I remember was that my dad's lifeless body was near to me in the water. I tried to get hold of the body and get him onto Milo's board but he kept falling off.

"The current was too strong and the waves meant I couldn't keep hold of my dad. We had to leave him in order to get back to the shore."

Mr Calder added: "I think it would be worthwhile in the future having lifeguards on the beach at busy times to help people who get into difficulty."

Cornwall Coroner Emma Carlyon recorded separate conclusions of accidental death and said having heard evidence from the Coastguard that rip tides are common she would not make a report to prevent future deaths.

"I have also been very impressed by the response from the general public and the emergency services in the rescue and medical support," she added.

"I believe this is worthy of public recognition."

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