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Battle to save drowning teen

What Happened
Person tired/overwhelmed by water
What Caused
Human factor
Casualty type/Qty
Causal Factors
Insufficient ability
Injury Details
Accident suspected

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Description of Incident
Friends of a teenager who drowned in Lough Erne have recalled frantic efforts to save his life after he got into difficulties swimming at Castle Archdale.

19-year-old Stuart Irwin from Piperhill in Newtownbutler had been out swimming with friends when he got into difficulty in waters at Castle Archdale Caravan Park and drowned.

At the inquest into his death on Friday, Coroner Joanne Donnelly heard from a number of witnesses who recalled the fear on the young man's face as he "splashed and splashed" in panic and the several frantic attempts that were made to rescue him by his friends and members of the public.

Mrs. Donnelly was also read a letter written by Mr. Irwin's sister Jill Johnston who said her family were "stunned" there were no life buoys available in the area on the day or a search diver. She said she believed if there had been then her brother would still be alive.

"The diver had to come from Belfast. They started looking eight hours after he went missing. The phrase too little too late springs to mind," said Mrs. Johnston who wrote of the "sheer devastation" she and her family have had to endure. "I know nothing will bring my little brother back," she said.

The inquest at Enniskillen Courthouse heard that it was a warm and sunny day and Mr. Irwin and his friends had been jumping off an old utility pier that was previously used by the Catalina Flying Boats when they decided to swim across to the nearby Davey's Island.

Witness and friend Graham Kelly said the group had intended to go banana boating but when they found out it wasn't on they went swimming instead.

"The island would have been 200 to 300 metres away. I was in the water for 10 to 15 minutes and the water started to get rough. Stuart fell back 10 yards away from me."

When he noticed Mr. Irwin was in difficulty he swam back and put both his arms around him in an attempt to keep his head above the water.

"Stuart was pale and coughing. I was trying to hold him upů I was so exhausted," he said.

Another friend, Warren Clarke recalled swimming half way across from the island when he heard the shouting.

"I could only see splashing. I tried to swim back but it was hard going against the current. He was splashing about and going up and down and up and down."

Another witness, Mark Wedlock said everyone was shouting for help.

"He was going up and down. He seemed to float away from the others. I saw a boy on a jet ski and called for help but he went on."

Adam Rusk recounted his persistent attempts to save his friend: "I battled with him to keep him up".

And next door neighbour Alister Rickey said it was his first time in the water with Mr. Irwin.

"About half way I saw Stuart was a bit behind. He said he was alright. I shouted at the boys to slow up and I noticed him slowing down. He was short of breath."

Mr. Rickey told the inquest how he tried in vain to hold his friend up but Mr. Irwin's body weight when submerged in the water increased and it was no good: "I decided for my own life I had to let him go."

The inquest also heard how a private boat was close by with two members of the public on board.

Police received the emergency call at 4.57pm. The call said there was one person in the lake and they feared they were drowning. The coastguard then received the call at 5.03pm and the boat warden attended the scene at 5.07pm. The coastguard, lifeboat and police boat were on the scene approximately 20 minutes later.

Constable Kane told the inquest there was no diver available in the immediate area when the call came in. She suggested rescue attempts were a matter for the coastguard and not the PSNI.

"It was a police boat that was tasked to look for Stuart. The boat was in attendance at 5.32pm from Enniskillen. It had no diver, it was to assist in the search," she said.

When questioned by Coroner Joanne Donnelly on the availability of life buoys or rings in the area, Constable Kane said there is presently one life ring 20 feet away from the jetty but she couldn't confirm whether or not it was present on the day.

In a statement, David Mahon, the owner of Castle Archdale Caravan Park, said the jetty was the responsibility of the Department of Environment.

Ms. Donnelly said one of the issues she was looking at was the availability of a diver for a search exercise as opposed to a diver for retrieving the body.

Sergeant George O'Neil of the Emergency Planning Unit which handles police diving explained how he arrived at Castle Archdale Caravan Park at 10.50pm.

The inquest heard how the area around the old concrete jetty was in disrepair and given the distance it was decided the divers were to launch from the Lady Grey, an inflatable platform.

"Marker buoys had been placed where he was last seen but due to the distance the buoys were from the shore the boats were to be used. We cast off from the jetty and the diver commenced the search at 11.43pm. At 12.20am the body was located."

Sergeant O'Neil assisted diver Mark Finlay to lift the deceased's body out of the water and into a body bag. It was located in six metres of water and 195 metres from the shore. Conditions on the day were good; there were no underwater obstacles or strong currents. The depth of the channel was three to four metres.

Mr. Irwin's body was identified by his father Albert. He was wearing long green shorts, a silver chain and had scuff marks to his upper right chin.

Sean McCarry, Commander of Community Search and Rescue Service, said even if there had been life belts available on the jetty he believed nothing more could have been done.

"He wouldn't have been able to use it; those around him may have been able to. They [life belts] are designed for shore rescue which is why this type of rescue would have been impossible. Everything that could have been done was done," he said.

Mr. Irwin suffered from asthma since birth but it was well controlled. The Assistant Pathologist said he died from fresh water drowning, his body was physically healthy and asthma played no role or contributed to his death.

Coroner Joanne Donnelly took 30 minutes to make her verdict to Mr. Irwin's family who were present in court. She said she was satisfied that all that could have been done was done. However, she expressed her unease.

"I have a lingering sense of unease that more should be done to exercise caution to young people on the dangers of using lakes, loughs, rivers, whatever. I will be reporting this to the relevant Northern Ireland bodies; namely the Department of Environment and Department of Health to take action and highlight the dangers, possibly through a public awareness campaign through the media."

Ms. Donnelly finished by offering the family her "sincere condolences".
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