‘Frivolity can turn to fatality’: UK heatwave brings rise in teenage drownings

Seven boys have died since 5 July and rescue services fear this will have doubled by end of the month

It is a grimly familiar toll. Since the start of the heatwave, seven teenage boys have lost their lives in suspected drownings at lakes, canals, quarries and rivers across the UK as they sought to cool down with friends in record temperatures.

Now rescue services are warning this number is likely to double by the end of July, as young people remain unaware of the dangers of jumping into cold water in hot weather and are prone to taking risks in unsafe waters without adults around. On Tuesday it was announced that a total of 13 people had died in open water since the start of the heatwave.

One of the seven boys was 16-year-old Jamie Lewin, a promising young boxer from Southport described by his mother, Stephanie Lewin, as “gorgeous, dead loud and really funny”.

Jamie drowned after jumping into water at East Quarry, in Appley Bridge near Wigan, on Saturday 9 July. Lewin said her son had left the house shortly after midday to meet friends after babysitting his younger sister in the morning.

When she got the call from police at about 9pm to say there had been an accident, she was in disbelief. “He was my little boy, I just didn’t think it was real,” she said.

“He was such a strong boy, he wouldn’t have thought [it could happen to him]. He was a boxer, he was in the gym every day and working as a builder. He was really strong and fit.”

Jamie, who could not swim, was the third person to die at the black spot after Miracle Godson in 2015 and Craig Croston in 1999.

In warmer weather, young people can often be seen jumping from the steep, rocky sides of the quarry into the water, despite signs warning of the dangers. Days after Jamie’s death, teenagers were spotted in the water again.

Lewin called for police to patrol at the quarry and at similar high-risk places across the UK, and for more safe places for teenagers to swim free of charge.

The seven teenage boys who have drowned since the start of the heatwave are:

  • 5 July Nicolae Topa – the 17-year-old’s body was found after he entered Fairlop Waters, a lake in Ilford, east London, to swim.

  • 9 July Jamie Lewin – the 16-year-old drowned at East Quarry in Appley Bridge near Wigan.

  • 11 July Alfie McCraw – the 16-year-old from Wakefield died after getting into trouble in the water in the South Washlands area of the Aire and Calder Navigation in West Yorkshire.

  • 16 July Kalen Waugh – the 16-year-old died after being spotted in trouble in the water at Salford Quays.

  • 17 July Robert Hattersley – the 13-year-old drowned in the River Tyne near Ovingham in Northumbria.

  • 18 July A 16-year-old boy died after getting into difficulty in Bray Lake, near Maidenhead, Berkshire.

  • 18 July A 14-year-old boy drowned in the River Thames in Richmond, south-west London.

Teenage boys are the demographic most likely to drown on hot days, according to Dawn Whittaker, the chief fire officer of East Sussex fire and rescue who is the National Fire Chiefs Council lead for drowning prevention and water safety, and chair of the National Water Safety Forum, which produced the UK’s drowning prevention strategy.

Last year, 39 young people aged 11 to 20 drowned in accidents, a large rise on the three-year average of 28. Nearly 90% were male.

Salford Quays in Greater Manchester
Salford Quays in Greater Manchester, where there have been seven drowning-related incidents in the past year. Photograph: Dave Porter/Alamy

Whittaker said teenagers often exhibited a lack of understanding about the dangers of jumping into cold water and tended not to take care to avoid unsafe swimming places, such as weirs and reservoirs with machinery. “This is a distinct issue and risk pattern that we’re seeing playing out here,” she said.

“This is predominantly young people jumping into cold water, not understanding what the potential implications are.”

Cold water shock can be a precursor to drowning and occurs when a person is exposed to water with a temperature below 15C (59F), causing the heart to pump more rapidly, leaving the sufferer gasping for breath and making it easy to inhale water.

Whittaker said: “If they jump into cold water when their bodies are hot, they are going to encounter a physiological reaction to that.”

She joined the Royal Life Saving Society (RLSS) in urging parents to educate their children about these risks and to “float to live” by laying on their back in the water if they get into trouble.

RLSS research found 88% of parents of children who have swimming lessons felt confident their child knew how to stay safe around water. However, its analysis of 83 accidental drownings of eight- to 18-year-olds in the UK found 61% were described as swimmers.

The charity’s director, Lee Heard, said: “Frivolity can very quickly turn to fatality if great care is not taken.”

He added: “We want to make them aware of dangers they may not have thought of and stop them from making blind decisions that could be life changing or even life ending.”

On Tuesday it was announced there would be extra police patrols at Jamestone Quarry in Haslingden, Lancashire – following reports more than 400 people had gathered there – along with fire and rescue service officers who would be diverting people away and giving water safety messaging.

At Salford Quays, following the death of Kalen Waugh, firefighters were on Tuesday warning people of the dangers of diving in, as well as training nearby bar and hotel staff to use an emergency throw line to reel in anyone in distress.

Greater Manchester fire and rescue service said it had been called to seven drowning-related incidents at Salford Quays in the past year – three of them during the current heatwave.

Mick Callan, a station manager at Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service, said Waugh’s death was “traumatic for everybody” and that it was frustrating that since then people continued to disregard safety advice and jump in.

As well as training local staff, the fire service is warning local schoolchildren about the dangers of open water swimming and is in discussions with Salford council about increasing signage around the Quays.

“People think that because they’re a competent swimming that it’s the same as the swimming baths. It’s totally different,” he said.

“People need to understand how dangerous it is, with the temperature drop and the potential debris you might get tangled in. However tempting the water may look the reality can be quite different.”

Tom Moran, a fire crew manager based at Salford station, said it was a constant struggle to explain the dangers to people.

During a previous drowning incident, people were still diving in the Quays at the same time as officers were retrieving a body, he said. “If that’s not a reason to stop diving in, then what is?”


Robyn Vinter and Josh Halliday

The GuardianTramp

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