Aaron Burgess, 14, died an "accidental death" after being encouraged to use the weir near Saltford lock as a slide
A 14-YEAR-old boy who drowned in the River Avon was encouraged to slide down a weir sluice by “older boys”, it has emerged.
Popular Aaron Burgess had been swimming with friends near the Jolly Sailor pub in Saltford on a warm evening last July, when he got into difficulties and dropped below the surface.
Much of the tragic circumstances of that day had already emerged before the inquest into his death at Flax Bourton Coroner’s Court today.
But what had not been told was how the Sir Bernard Lovell pupil and his mates had been encouraged to use the sluice, also known as a “cut out”, as a slide into the deep water below.
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Giving evidence at the inquest, investigating officer DS Marc Hathway said from the witness statements taken he could surmise that at about 5.30pm the teenagers had come across “older boys” sitting on the weir who had already been sliding in.
“Older boys were saying ‘have a go’,” DS Hathway said. “I don’t think they (Aaron’s group) saw it as a risk, I think they saw it as a way of shooting down over the weir.”
Wearing only a pair of purple shorts, Aaron was first down the sluice, followed by Jesse Stroud and another friend called Joe.
Aaron immediately got into difficulties, went under the water a couple of times then started spitting out water, calling for his friends to help.
When Jesse and Joe tried to pull him to safety, DS Hathway said Aaron “panicked” and grabbed Jesse around the neck, dragging him down too.
Fearing for his own safety, Jesse pulled away and all of Aaron’s friends tried to get help.
Meanwhile, Aaron’s best mate Connor Wiltshire had enlisted the help of another swimmer called Joe Stevens, who knew the boys from football coaching.
Mr Stevens told the inquest: “I could still see Aaron’s head constantly bobbing up and down in the water.”
He and Connor took a blue rubber dinghy and tried to get out to Aaron, but the current and the high water levels slowed them down.
Mr Stevens added: “We got about 5-10 meters from him, then he went under for the last time and didn’t come back up. We stayed in the water for four or five minutes hoping he might pop up and we could rescue him.”
An extensive search was carried out by the emergency services and volunteer rescuers, into the night.
Aaron’s body was found amongst boulders on the riverbed about 3.9 metres down, by police diver Sgt Ian MacGregor, at about 11.30pm.
He told the inquest that beneath the surface the currents were not very strong and by night-time, the water temperature had fallen to 17C.
The inquest heard Aaron could swim, but was not a strong swimmer.
His dad Jamie said he had warned the 14-year-old about the dangers of swimming by the weir when he used to take him fishing there.
Aaron’s closest friends, dad and dad’s partner Carrie Valentine were all at the inquest.
Mr Burgess and Miss Valentine both questioned the lack of life rings or safety signs in the area before Aaron’s death on July 24.
After the tragedy, his family and friends installed two rings and the Canal and River Trust, which owns the nearby lock and half of the weir, installed another one, as well as a warning sign.
Tony Stammers, head of health and safety for the CRT, said monthly visits are made to ensure existing safety features around the trust’s locks are in working order, but that the CRT only has a responsibility to ensure the safety of boats and their passengers using the lock, not members of the general public on the weir and river.
He admitted that the CRT had received a letter from a man from Bath who had rescued a girl from the river six weeks before Aaron died.
The day before his death, the CRT pencilled in another safety review for a later date.
“It would have been a priority amongst many, unfortunately,” Mr Stammers said. “Unfortunately, we are the navigation authority only, not the landowners.”
Mr Burgess asked Mr Stammers why the CRT could not install a fence to prevent or deter people from walking out to the middle of the weir.
Mr Stammers replied: “I do not believe there are any other reasonably practicable steps to be taken, other than educating people of the risks.
“If people consciously choose to access the weir we are not in a position to stop them, unfortunately.”
He did say he would “reflect” on Mr Burgess’ request for a fence, however.
Avon Coroner Maria Voisin gave a verdict of accidental death.
She said she would be writing to the CRT requesting feedback on whether they decide to install a new fence or barrier.
After the inquest, Mr Burgess, 35, of California Road, Longwell Green, said: “I think the verdict is ok, but I do feel that more health and safety issues need to be addressed down there.
“I think the trust have tried to shove the blame on somebody else.
“I think it could have been prevented and if there was life-saving equipment or any sort of health and safety down there, it could have helped.
“Obviously, I’m still devastated because I’ve lost my son, but you’ve just got to try to carry on, I think.”
Aaron attended Cadbury Heath Youth Club and leaves mum Lucy, brother Jordan, 13, and sister Ryleigh, 11.
After the inquest, Mr Stammers said: “The events of last July were absolutely tragic and our thoughts go to Aaron’s family and friends at this difficult time.
“In addition to the railings already in place at the lock island, we have installed ‘no swimming’ signs and a life ring at the site in an attempt to further help deter swimming in this area.
“We would reiterate that our advice is always to avoid swimming in rivers and canals unless it is an organised event. The water is often very cold, even on the warmest of days, which can cause cramps. There can also be very strong currents and obstructions under the water which can be hazardous to even the strongest of swimmers.”