Council chief quizzed at Camber Sands inquest over decision not to deploy lifeguards three years before Bexley men drowned

PUBLISHED: 17:33 29 June 2017

Police officers on Camber Sands near Rye, East Sussex. Photo: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

Police officers on Camber Sands near Rye, East Sussex. Photo: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

The hearing was adjourned until Friday

A council chief has defended his authority’s decision not to deploy lifeguards on a south coast beach three years before seven men, three of whom were from Bexley, drowned.

Dr Anthony Leonard, executive director at Rother District Council in East Sussex, faced questions over why a recommendation from the RNLI in 2013 to have lifeguards at Camber Sands, near Rye, was not taken up.

Three years later seven men died there. On July 24 last year, Mohit Dupar, 36, tried to reach Brazilian Gustavo Silva Da Cruz, 19, as he got into difficulty off the coast at Camber but both died.

A month later, five young friends, who all lived in the London area and were of Sri Lankan origin, drowned at the same beach after being seen playing volleyball in the sea.

Dr Leonard said the authority’s decision not to employ lifeguards in 2013 was balanced against other factors, that it did not have a “bottomless pit” of money and that it had statutory obligations to fund.

He told the inquest in Hastings: “The risk assessment had some merit in it that we looked at.

“The risk assessment had to be balanced on other things, like safety in the car park as well as measures on the beach.”

Dr Leonard added: “The decision was made on a number of factors, not just resources.

“It was also based on operations and known factors at the time.”

Nine deaths have occurred at Camber in the four years from 2012, of which seven happened last summer. But up until 2012, Camber had relatively few incidents since Rother took responsibility for the beach in 1974, Dr Leonard said.

Prior to the seven deaths last summer, Camber had no lifeguards and was manned by beach patrol staff whose tasks included reuniting lost children with their parents and dealing with lost property.

But following calls for improved safety, Rother District Council agreed in February this year to allocate £51,000 in its 2017/18 budget for seasonal lifeguard cover this summer.

East Sussex senior coroner Alan Craze said: “It was too dangerous as events proved to have systems under which no-one was tasked to look out to sea and that has been addressed.

“It is never going to provide a guarantee that there will not be another fatality but this was the single most obvious step to be taken.”

The inquest also heard that although rip currents were not known to be a problem at Camber, it did have sandbars that could catch people out if the tide came in rapidly, sometimes causing people to have to wade through water to reach shore.

Tristan Cawte, manager of the Camber Kitesurf Centre, said the sandbars were not dangerous on their own but people, particularly weak swimmers, could quickly find themselves waist or shoulder deep in water.

He said: “On a busy weekend, as the tide comes in and people are sun-bathing on a sandbar, they can be completely unaware that water is coming in.

“And so there can be 20 or 30 people on a sandbar and then they have to wade through water to get back onto the beach.”

On the day of the five deaths, Mr Cawte said the water looked “about as safe and inviting” as you would see at Camber without considering the tide and water movement.

Speaking about future prevention of drownings, he believed lifeguards and watchtowers would benefit safety but on their own they would not prevent future deaths at Camber, a beach that could attract more than 20,000 visitors in peak season.

Peter Dawes, lifesaving services manager at the RNLI, said one organisation should not be held solely responsible for preventing drownings but instead it should be a “collaborative” approach.

The five who died were Kenugen Saththiyanathan, 18, known as Ken, and his brother Kobikanthan Saththiyanathan, 22, known as Kobi, both of Normandy Way, Erith, south-east London, and their friends Nitharsan Ravi, 22, of Admaston Road, Plumstead, south-east London, Inthushan Sriskantharasa, 23, of Chadwell Road, Grays, Essex, and Gurushanth Srithavarajah, 27, of Elsa Road, Welling, south-east London.

The inquest has heard the five men were all fit, healthy and competent swimmers when they died on a sunny day last August 24, but that Camber Sands had “hidden dangers”.

The inquest was adjourned to 10am on Friday.

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