Posted by: njrigg | March 20, 2010

Riverbank Safety Promoted by Bereaved Mother

Riverbank Safety Promoted by Bereaved Mother

by Andrea Corrie

On 28 July 2005 my 19 year old son James lost his life in the river Thames at Kingston, Surrey, Southeast England.  He had spent a night out with friends, ending the evening in a nightclub located at the riverside.  The group had divided when the nightclub closed to take taxis to their respective home areas; each group thought that James was with the other. It appears that on leaving the nightclub James took the riverside exit and for reasons that we will never know, he fell into the water.  The alarm was raised the following day but James was not recovered until Sunday 31 July.  No witnesses ever came forward.

Riverbank, before safety improvements.

Beyond the utter shock and grief that accompanies such a loss, when we visited the site of the accident with our Police Liaison officers the day after James was found, we were horrified by the evident lack of safety in the location.  Of the nightclub’s two exits, one led away from the river towards the town, the other was an open staircase to the river towpath, which was three metres wide and unfenced.  River paths are ‘protected heritage’ in the UK, their historical purpose being to transport goods.

The drop from the towpath to the water was around three metres, and the inadequate lighting was obscured by trees.  It was obvious to us that anyone who fell into the water would not have a chance of getting out unless he/she was close to the shallow steps some 20 metres away.  A single emergency flotation device was set back from the path.  Regrettably, CCTV cameras that may have picked up James’ last movements were either angled away from the edge of river or obscured by foliage.

Dangerous riverbank, before safety improvements.

Despite the distress of seeing where my precious son lost his life, I vowed that I would, as soon as practicably possible, do whatever I could to institute some changes at the riverside.  I had an unerring need to take tangible action and this undoubtedly helped my progress along the grief path.

I established that Kingston Council, the local authority, was responsible for the area. We met with two of the Council’s senior officers, Tim Darwen and Gary Walsh. They immediately came across as supportive and empathetic and remained proactive throughout.  From the outset, we were told we were ‘pushing on an open door’ from the Council’s Chief Executive downwards, and by January 2006, the Council had employed outside Consultants to produce a ‘risk assessment’ report with recommendations to be put to the full Council.  In February, a budget of $178,750 was approved at the Council meeting, at which I addressed the members of the Council directly, reading the following statement:

“I appreciate the opportunity to address the meeting.  The Committee will know that we met on an informal basis with the Council officers last week.  We found the meeting very positive and we acknowledge the efforts that have so far been made.  If everything that has been promised comes to fruition, we will feel that our efforts have not been in vain.

“Having read the safety report, it is difficult for us to turn our minds away from the belief that, had the previously recommended action been taken, what befell my son would have been far less likely.

“The most positive accomplishment that we can hope for is to ensure that measures are taken to prevent further loss of life, and it is in this regard that we urge you, as a committee, to approve and support such action to the fullest possible extent.  We hope that the momentum that has already been generated by the Authority in their deliberations can continue to grow and take the matter forward to a constructive conclusion.

“I also hope the committee appreciates my need to feel that I am contributing to the progression of this issue, through participating in the different stages of the process.

“On a more personal note, it is impossible for me to express the sense of loss that comes with being a bereaved parent; I hardly need say that it is against the natural order of life.  For me, part of trying to come to terms with my loss is to do whatever is within my power to prevent another family having to live through such a tragedy”.

New riverbank fence for safety and protection.

The impact on the Council, through my spelling out my views on a personal level, helped the consultation process to move forward. Ultimately recommendations, including the installation of barriers, resurfacing, improved lighting, tree removal and the relocation of chains along the towpath wall were agreed.  Additionally, the nightclub management agreed to install a lockable gate at the top of the stairs on the riverside exit.

Naturally we could not help but feel these measures should already have been in place prior to our loss.  James’ accident was viewed as the catalyst for change and I suspect that had I not driven a sustained campaign, action may not have been taken.  At James’ inquest in November 2005, the Coroner was supportive and we were gratified that she wrote a helpful letter of recommendation to the Council.

In 2006, I read in the national press of a distressingly similar drowning incident that had occurred the previous September in Norwich, Norfolk, some 100 miles from Surrey.  This happened despite the presence of good lighting and barriers, but I felt that some input from the area might ‘help our cause’ in Kingston.  I duly contacted Norwich City Council.  As a result Tim and Gary made a site visit and the barriers that were chosen for Kingston are the same as those in Norwich.  They were installed in early 2007.

Memorial Plaque, Safety Improvements.

It was agreed that a memorial plaque would be put in place at the appropriate time. We agreed on the design, wording and location of the plaque and it was installed on September 11 2007, the date of James’ 22nd birthday.

Subsequently, an extra $80,000 was assigned to the project by the local traders committee and the Metropolitan police for additional lighting, and the towpath was resurfaced.  The steps are now delineated and the trees have been removed.  Benches are sited away from the edge and new planters appropriately placed.  The area is now safer, lighter and brighter, and public feedback is wholly positive.

I liaised with the Council in 2008/09 to contribute to a ‘water safety leaflet’ that was placed in the local bars and restaurants, along with some ‘beer mats’ that contained a stark warning message about the dangers of drinking alcohol around water.  Today, I feel a sense of achievement and relief at the completion of my mission.  I also take comfort in knowing that each person who passes by at the riverside, who sees James’ memorial plaque, will be aware of the tragic event that lies behind the changes in the location.   This is a fitting and lasting legacy for my son.

Memorial Plaque

Should you too find yourself in a situation that requires tackling bureaucracy I would emphasise that the most important attribute you can possess, alongside determination, is the self belief that you, as an individual, can effect change that will positively affect many lives in the future.

James Edward Clark, 19.

James Edward Clark lost his life in the Thames at Kingston, in the early hours of Thursday 28 July 2005, in a tragic accident.

Written in loving memory of James; ‘forever 19, always in our hearts’

PHOTOS by Andrea Corrie, copyright protected, used with permission.

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