Plymouth parents of the victims of the Lyme Bay tragedy recall their agony on the 20th anniversary of the disaster
It was a tragedy that shocked the nation. Two decades ago, four Plymouth teenagers died on a canoeing trip in Lyme Bay. Claire Jones reports on the events, the families’ anguish and lessons that were learned.
HEARTBROKEN parents of teenagers whose lives were cruelly taken 20 years ago today in the Lyme Bay tragedy have spoken of their ongoing grief as they mark the anniversary.
Parents of the youngsters who drowned at sea in an ill-fated canoe trip have remembered their sons and daughters, who attended Southway Comprehensive.
Dean Sayer, aged 17, and 16-year-olds Simon Dunne, Claire Langley and Rachel Walker were lost in the disaster on March 22, 1993.
Pupils Emma Hartley, Joanna Willis, Samantha Stansby and Marie Rendle, teacher Norman Pointer and instructors Karen Gardener and Anthony Mann were rescued. But Dean, Simon, Claire and Rachel, who would have celebrated her 17th birthday two days later, were swept away.
Teenager Simon Dunne joked and sang songs to keep his friends spirits up as they battled to stay alive. Simon, who was well known as a prankster with a wicked sense of humour, led other victims in a chorus of "eight red canoes sinking in the water" to the tune of "10 Green Bottles" during their agonising three-hour wait to be rescued.
But as time dragged on, the freezing water took its toll on the youngsters.
It claimed the life of 16-year-old Simon before the rescue teams could reach the canoeists. His friends Claire, Dean and Rachel died later in hospital.
Sylvia and Noel Dunne described how they will mark the anniversary.
"We'll be doing what we normally do," Mr Dunne said. "As each year goes by you have to stop and think about what might have been.
"We wonder what Simon would be doing now, would he have married, would we have grandchildren, we can't help but think about that. Both our other children have had children and we have our sixth grandchild coming next month.
"They all know Simon. It's nice, we've always included him. We talk about him and be honest with them and they do understand."
Their daughter Stacey, now 34, is a farmer's wife, and has had four children, with the fifth due next month. Their son Steven is now 32. He works in banking, lives in Bournemouth and has a daughter.
"It was very heartwarming at the time," Mr Dunne recalled. "I remember the funeral service. The church was packed, there were so many people who came out in support.
"I've always been grateful for what people did for us. They all recognised the four young people who had died. There's still people who come up to us and recognise us.
"We believed it was a tragic accident. But it wasn't an accident, it was negligence on a huge scale. The poor kids had no chance. It was such a waste. Occasionally we bump into the other survivors, but you don't dwell or else you get depressed.
"Twenty years is a lot of years. It's a lifetime, and things change. It would be very easy to get stuck in the past – but you can't.
"I say to young people who have children that when they want to go don't stop them – but make sure they're safe. Go there if you need to, just make sure they are going to be OK. If it means paying more then just do it."
Carolyn Bernard, whose daughter Claire Langley died in hospital, told The Herald: "I take flowers to her grave every year. She's with us every day though. It's not just on the anniversary we remember her, she's with me all the time. I don't know where the 20 years have gone. Claire's sister Jayne was 14 years old when she died and she's 34 now.
"What can you do on a day like that? The anniversaries, the birthdays, the Christmases – it's not just those days, I think about her every single day. I can't believe 20 years have gone by, she would have been 37 in April.
"The other girls have their own lives, they are married and have their own children now, they've all grown up. I also wonder what career she would be doing and whether I would be a grandmother now or not.
"I said it at the time and I feel the same now; we were the ones who have the life sentence. We have the rest of our lives without Claire. She'll always be 16, she'll never grow up. It's a really hard time for us all. The people of Plymouth were really good. They supported us and laid flowers for our children. They showed their respects. It was all like a dream but you don't wake up from it. Those 20 years have disappeared."
Tom Healy was the former Devon county secretary of the NASUWT union and visited the Weymouth and District Hospital in Dorset to support teacher Norman Pointer. He was also present at all four funerals.
"Everything that could have gone wrong went wrong," he said."I also attended all four funerals. It was a grim business.I was really down. It was just so horrible. So tragic. Just horrific and a really tough time. It's a scar that doesn't heal."
Mr Pointer, who applied for early retirement four days before the Lyme Bay disaster, left the school shortly afterwards, saying after the trial it had "blown my life apart."
As a result of the tragedy the school was renamed Southway Community College.
THE events that unfolded on March 22, 1993 sent shockwaves across the UK.
The weather was fine, with just a force four wind and a slight swell on the sea.
But trouble began immediately. Teacher Norman Pointer rolled over numerous times within minutes and was violently sick. Student Dean Sayer capsized while still close enough to the shore to stand.
When 23-year-old instructor Tony Mann asked if he wanted to go back, Dean said he could make it. Mr Mann considered returning but as he tried to help the teacher, he looked up and where previously, 30 yards away, had been the nine other members of the party, there was now just sea.
Within 20 minutes, despite the efforts of the other instructor, Karen Gardner, all but one canoe overturned and began to sink, leaving the pupils clinging to the last craft in seas just 9C above freezing.
The centre’s handyman was due to meet the party at Charmouth. At 12.25pm he reported the children missing to Joseph Stoddart, the St Albans manager.
A fishing boat, Spanish Eyes, spotted a red kayak bobbing two miles south-east of Lyme Regis. The skipper radioed the Portland Coastguard – the first sign of a tragedy unfolding. Seven minutes before the call, the last canoe sank and the children were left helpless, their life-jackets becoming waterlogged.
Mr Stoddart searched the shoreline for half an hour in a rescue boat, and drove along the shore. In desperation, students Samantha Stansby and Emma Hartley began to swim towards the coast for help. Others slipped into unconsciousness from hypothermia and fatigue – eight miles from their intended destination. June Mowforth, the acting headteacher of Southway Comprehensive, received a call just before 6pm from teacher John Ellis, who was at the St Albans Centre. He mentioned ‘a problem’ with the trip, but reassured her that the pupils were being picked up by helicopter. Within minutes, after telephoning Dorset police, she learned that one child had died.
Mrs Mowforth, who has since retired, went immediately to the school. Britain's worst canoeing disaster had unfolded as the last survivors were winched aboard rescue helicopters.
Back at the school, the list of eight canoeists were in their hands – but they didn’t know who had died. Just after 9pm came the confirmation that Simon Dunne was one of the dead, and that three others were in a critical condition. Mrs Mowforth called in the sixth-form tutors and prepared to break the news to parents. Two hours later, a fax arrived from the police with the list of the dead, identified by the head of sixth form, Norman Pointer, who survived the seven-hour ordeal. After a sleepless night, Mrs Mowforth arrived back in school at 7am, told the 57 staff what had happened and took assemblies in year groups to break the news to 940 pupils.
“There were three gaps in the A-level English class, something everyone found hard to come to terms with,” she said in the aftermath of the tragedy.
LEGAL CHANGES PROMPTED BY THE LOSS OF LIFE
FOLLOWING the tragedy the activity centre manager was jailed and the law changed to make companies and their employees criminally responsible for causing similar deaths.
Parents of the students supported the then Devonport MP David Jamieson in getting the 1995 Activity Centres (Young Persons’ Safety) passed as law. The Corporate Manslaughter (England and Wales) and Corporate Homicide Act (Scotland) 2007 came into force on April 6, 2008, making it easier to convict irresponsible companies.
Mr Jamieson, now leader of Labour Group for Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council, said: “The parents contacted me shortly after the disaster.
“Enormously to their credit they did not want to point the finger of blame, but at a time of huge personal grief they wanted to ensure it could never happen again. The tragedy sent a huge shock wave through the city, and the country.
“What made it worse was it was just down to a matter of minutes that made a difference between some of them dying and all of them dying.
“I still think about it now, I can still see their faces. They were the same age as my sons and daughter.
“We clocked up about 15 things, where if any one of them went right they all would have survived. Maybe a red flag, or if they had been taught how to use their safety jackets.
“The school did everything it could – what more could it do? – but it sent shock waves through all schools.”
Following the incident, St Albans Centre’s parent company, OLL, was prosecuted. Peter Kite, the activity centre manager, was jailed for three years in 1994, though he was freed after 14 months.
Devon County Council’s report into the tragedy stated it “quite simply, should not have happened”.
There was fear of the law being abolished in 2011, with proposals to scrap the legislation in favour of a voluntary code of practice.
“What has concerned me is the Coalition have been saying the law is unnecessary red tape,” Mr Jamieson added. “If they take that away people will stop taking part in activities.
“I have great worries about the Government trying to unpick the legislation. It will be worse for children’s safety. After Lyme Bay the whole industry took a major hit because parents and teachers didn’t know if they were putting lives at risk. I was a great believer at the time, and I am now, it’s good for youngsters and for team building and character building, but the checks on safety should never be taken away.”
10am: Six teenage girls, two boys and a teacher from Southway Comprehensive leave the St Albans Venture Centre at Lyme Regis with two instructors to canoe to Charmouth.
1pm: The party fails to arrive in Charmouth and the manager of St Albans Centre, Joe Stoddart, takes a boat out into the bay – but finds no trace of the canoeists.
2.45pm: A single red canoe is picked up by the fishing vessel Spanish Eyes five miles south of Lyme Regis and the alarm is raised.
3pm: Lifeboats are sent out after Portland Coastguards are alerted that a party of youngsters is overdue and presumed missing at sea after not turning up at Charmouth.
3.53pm: The Rescue Co-Ordination Centre in Plymouth is notified of the incident and helicopters from RNAS Portland, RAF Chivenor and warship HMS Beaver are alerted.
4.10pm: All the remaining canoes are picked up.
4.55pm: Eight people are plucked from the water by helicopters.
5pm: Two others are found washed up on a beach at Bridport and taken to Weymouth Hospital.
5.10pm: Portland Coastguard is notified that eleven people are in the party and one is still missing. Two helicopters and the lifeboats go back out to sea to continue the search.
6.10pm: The last missing person is picked up from the sea by a Sea King helicopter.