Thorpe Marshes drownings: Coroner criticises “mindless” vandals as jury returns verdicts of accidental deaths of two Norwich teenagers

Stella Kambi and Bonheur Musungay.

Stella Kambi and Bonheur Musungay. - Credit: Archant

The senior coroner for Norfolk said it was 'beyond belief' people would remove warning signs at a popular swimming spot where two Norwich teenagers drowned last summer.

The scene of St Andrews Broad at Thorpe Marshes on the outskirts of Norwich, where Bonheur Musungay,

The scene of St Andrews Broad at Thorpe Marshes on the outskirts of Norwich, where Bonheur Musungay, 14, and Stella Kambi, 17, drowned. PA/PA Wire - Credit: PA

Investigations found the deaths of Bonheur Musungay and Stella Kambi at Thorpe Marshes were a result of 'tragic errors in judgement' as a jury returned verdicts of accidental death.

Bonheur and Stella had visited the former gravel pit at Whitlingham Lane on August 12 last year with family and friends, Norfolk Coroner's Court heard.

14-year-old Bonheur had got into difficulty while swimming in the water when his cousin Stella, who would have celebrated her 19th birthday on Monday, raced in fully clothed to rescue him.

Both became submerged and were not seen alive again.

The inquest heard how management at the site had been attempting to tackle the problem since taking over the site in 2011.

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Kevin Hart, head of nature reserves at Norfolk Wildlife Trust, said they encouraged people to visit the site but that a spit - the only access point to the main body of water - was intended as a 'viewing platform'.

'We were aware the summer after we took the site on there was an issue with people going into the water,' he told the court. 'From that point we put patrolling systems in place and signage to warn people not to swim. 'We found permanent signs we would put up would disappear. We have always had the view we didn't want people accessing the water.'

In June 2015 the Trust were going into schools to educate youngsters about the dangers, and asked police for extra patrols. They were also liaising with partner agencies about putting out a safety message press release regarding the dangers at Thorpe Marshes specifically.

Three signs warning against swimming, erected on 21 July 2015, had been vandalised and removed after just two weeks. Two days before Bonheur and Stella drowned, the Trust decided to employ a new tactic.

'We discussed what should be done about the signs that had been destroyed,' said Mr Hart. 'We decided to erect blue-green algae warning signs from our stock in the hope that people felt there was a health hazard to entering the water. At the time it wasn't in bloom at the lake at Thorpe Marshes. It was a tactic to stop people entering the water.'

Only a single life ring was available at the site, as Mr Hart said their guidance was 'not about safety, it was about stopping people going into the water.'

'Placing life-saving equipment can in same cases make it seem swimming is allowed,' he said. 'It is not the solution if you are trying to prevent swimming.'

Ivan Brooke, HM Inspector with the Health and Safety Executive, said Norfolk Wildlife Trust had not breached their duty of care to Bonheur and Stella.

'They had quite a robust system in line with the guidance,' he said. 'The accident occurred as a result of tragic errors in judgement by some of those present. Norfolk Wildlife Trust had identified the risk to members of the public of entering the water and had taken reasonable steps to warn people.

'Life saving equipment may encourage people into the water by giving them the wrong message. The presence of life saving equipment can be counter-productive.'

Since the deaths of Bonheur and Stella, Norfolk Wildlife Trust have closed off access to the lake via the shingle spit.

'Because of this tragic incident and the difficulty we have had with warning signs we have now removed all access to the spit by extending the perimeter dyke,' added Mr Hart. 'We have continued patrolling but the security fence has suffered damage through people still trying to access at that point.'

Jacqueline Lake, senior coroner for Norfolk, said in conclusion: 'One thing that has struck me during the course of this inquest is it is beyond belief people will remove warning signs. As a result there were periods of time when there were no signs in place, so people like Mr Aketo [Stella's father] thought the area was safe.

'I would like to thank all those involved in attempting to rescue Stella and Bonheur, particularly members of the public who entered the water, at risk to themselves.

'After hearing about mindless vandalism of people who remove signs it is good to know there are such people around.'

No report will be made to prevent further deaths as 'action has been taken', she added.