Grandfather and uncle were inches from saving drowned teenager, inquest told
The grandfather of a teenage boy who drowned after getting into trouble in a river has spoken of the family's desperate efforts to pull him from the water – even getting hold of his arm at one stage.
Steven Mitchell (15) died on July 18 last year, when a family day out at Roe Valley Country Park ended in tragedy.
The teenager from Doagh, Co Antrim, was paddling in the River Roe in Limavady, when he waded out into deeper waters to retrieve a football.
His grandfather Joseph Milligan told an inquest hearing in Belfast that the 15-year-old was not a good swimmer and panicked when he realised he had got out of his depth and could not touch the bottom.
Steven was the eldest of six grandchildren who had accompanied Mr Milligan, his son and two daughters on the day out when the nightmare scenario unfolded.
Mr Milligan told the court of how he and his son, Joe Milligan Jnr, tried in vain to pull the schoolboy to safety.
Steven's uncle managed to get within 10 inches of the teen but had to turn back as he was struggling to stay afloat. His grandfather then swam out and managed to grab his grandson's arm with one hand. However, he couldn't pull him up with both hands as strength in one of his arms is limited due to arthritis.
"I did get hold of his arm at one point but I wasn't strong enough to hold him up with one arm.
"Steven was driving me down as well, as my lungs were filling with water," he said. "He disappeared beneath me. I couldn't keep him up. He slipped away."
A passer-by, David Seed, then assisted Mr Milligan Jnr in getting Steven out of the water.
Mr Seed carried out cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) for 15 minutes before members of Steven's family took over for another 20 minutes.
When Coroner Jim Kitson told Steven's emotional uncle he had done the best he could in the circumstances, he replied: "I just wish I could have done more."
It took a paramedic and an emergency medical technician from the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service around 30 minutes to get to Steven as they had to walk for 10 to 15 minutes after their arrival on the site. The coroner was told that the scene of the drowning was not accessible by car due to a narrow path.
The court also heard two helicopter crews had been alerted to Steven's plight at this time.
The Irish Coastguard helicopter from Sligo could not land at the site, but the PSNI helicopter did, and airlifted the teenager to Altnagelvin Hospital where he was later pronounced dead.
Paramedic John McClintock, area manager for the western division of NIAS, told the court: "I would commend the PSNI. They placed that helicopter in difficult terrain and gave it all to help us assist Steven."
Steven's "pulse ceased" as he was lifted onto the helicopter, however efforts to save him continued throughout the five-minute journey.
Seamus Carten, a warden from Roe Valley Country Park, told the inquest a comprehensive review of health and safety was currently under way at all Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) sites and that officials were still considering extra warning signs in light of the tragedy.
He explained that signs warning of the fast flowing river and deep water were in place at the park at the time and that all health and safety measures complied with current standards
Coroner Jim Kitson described Steven's death as "a quite horrific tragedy" and said he would be recording the cause of death as drowning.
Coroner Kitson commended all those who tried to save Steven's life and extended his sympathy to the boy's family.
He pointed out that following a number of similar circumstance deaths last summer, it served as a reminder of the dangers of swimming in rivers and other places not identified as official swimming areas.
"I did get hold of his arm at one point but I wasn't strong enough to hold him up with one arm. Steven was driving me down as well, as my lungs were filling with water. I just couldn't keep him up, he slipped away from me."
Joseph Milligan, grandfather of drowning victim Steven Mitchell