‘I looked back and saw the bubbles where Ryan had been’ – Woman describes seeing her boyfriend drown in Bawsey Pits tragedy
06:30 26 February 2014
A woman has told how she struggled in vain to save her boyfriend from drowning, and watched the bubbles rise as he slipped beneath the surface of the water.
Ryan Pettengell died while swimming at Bawsey Pits during last summer’s heatwave, the second victim on a day of double tragedy at the former quarry near King’s Lynn in which a 16-year-old boy also drowned.
At an inquest in Norwich yesterday, Norfolk senior coroner Jacqueline Lake raised questions over safety at the site, where swimming is banned, and will outline her concerns in a report to the pit owners, local authorities and police.
Mr Pettengell, 41, of Railway Road, King’s Lynn, had been relaxing with friends and their children at the pits when he decided to swim over to an island to join his girlfriend Lauren Cole, who had told police officers searching for missing Umar Balogun that she had seen something there.
In a statement read to the inquest jury, Ms Cole described how she watched Mr Pettengell get into difficulties and then swam out to help him.
“I saw him swim about half way and then he began to slow down. He said in a breathless voice ‘Get me a stick, get me a log’.
“I ripped off a branch and swam out to him. I held the branch but it wouldn’t float. I grabbed his arm and started to pull him. I was being pulled under and I had to swim back to the side,” she said.
“As I swam back I could see him going under. I looked back and I saw the bubbles where Ryan had been.”
Police and fire teams were called to help, though the police officers at the scene at the time were unable to help at the time as they were not strong enough swimmers, the inquest heard.
‘What happens if someone accidentally falls in the water?’
Ryan Pettengell’s best friend has called for improved safety at the flooded quarry where the 41-year-old lost his life.
Wesley Moule said life rings or other measures were needed to prevent another tragedy at the pits.
Yesterday’s inquest heard that installing such equipment could often have the reverse effect by encouraging people to swim, and were often targets for vandalism.
But Mr Moule said: “What happens if someone accidentally falls in the water?
“They should have the safety facilities, and they need to improve the signs.”
He said Mr Pettengell’s attempt to help the police, which led to him getting in the water, showed his friend’s generosity of spirit.
“Ryan, being the kind of guy he was, didn’t care for his own safety. I can’t fault him for it.
“Maybe he panicked, and when you do that you are on a slippery slope. But it was a tragic accident.”
He said Mr Pettengell, godfather to his daughter, was his best friend, with whom he shared a passion for hunting, fishing and motorbikes.
The pit owners last night encouraged site users to heed the safety messages which have been in place for many years.
Swimming in the lakes, which are deep and thick with undergrowth, is banned, but the warning signs are ignored by many people.
Mr Pettengell’s body was eventually found by fire crews around 7.30pm that night, two hours before Mr Balogun’s was recovered from another lake.
The jury returned a conclusion that Mr Pettengell had died as the result of an accident.
They were told he suffered from heart problems and had broken his wrist six weeks previously, though best friend Wesley Moule said he was a good swimmer.
He said the group had assumed Mr Pettengell was joking when he first called for help, adding: “It wasn’t until we saw him going under and not come back up again that we thought there’s something seriously not right.”
Firefighter Lee Broadhurst, who was involved in the search, said Mr Pettengell was likely to have been out of his depth.
During the inquest, questions were raised about adequate ‘no swimming’ signage near the sandy area where Mr Pettengell drowned.
West Norfolk Borough Council has since recommended Sibelco UK improve safety through better maintenance of warning signs, new signs showing the most dangerous areas and displaying emergency contact details, and planting to prevent access to the water.
Victoria Hopps from West Norfolk Borough Council said the council would be taking no further action against the company, and that it was up to Sibelco UK to carry out an appropriate risk assessment.
“It’s a difficult site to police when people ignore the warnings even the day after this happened,” she said.