Tributes paid to driver who died when his crane plunged into river at Mepal

Tributes were paid in Parliament today to a crane driver who died after his 27-ton machine collapsed into a river.

Environment Agency staff across England and Wales were told to carry out a fresh risk asssessment of any work being carried out near water this morning, as investigations continued into the accident at Mepal, near Ely.

Firefighters tried in vain to reach the man, who was trapped in the submerged cab, but he was declared dead around three hours after the crane fell into the freezing Old Bedford River yesterday.

At today's Commons question time, Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman told MPs: 'I'm sorry to have to tell the House of some sad news that a member of the Environment Agency staff was tragically killed yesterday in an accident.

'I hope the whole House will join me in extending our condolences to his family at this very difficult time.'

Her sentiments were echoed by Labour and by the Tory chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Anne McIntosh.

Today an Environment Agency spokesman told the EDP: 'As a precautionary measure all our work nationally in or near water was reviewed before being allowed to start this morning.'

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Health and Safety Executive officials last night launched an investigation to the accident, which happened near the A142 at Mepal, near Ely, Cambs.

The crane driver, who worked for the Environment Agency, was dredging a frozen section of the Old Bedford River, when the machine toppled down the bank.

Firefighters wearing dry suits used an inflatable boat to cross the ice and found the cab of the crane beneath the water. They smashed the glass and raised the man's head, while police brought heavy lifting equipment to the scene.

Julian Fountain, incident commander for Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue Service, said: 'All agencies have worked extremely closely together to make every effort to fully release the man from the water as quickly as possible.

'However, due to the location of the crane, the freezing weather conditions and the fact that the man was trapped, this could not happen in time. This is an extremely tragic incident. Our thoughts go out to the man's family.'

Last night a spokesman for the Health and Safety Executive said: 'Police have handed over the investigation to the HSE. Two of our inspectors are on site and are investigating the accident.'

The crane driver has not been named. Environment Agency area manager Geoff Brighty said: 'I, and everyone at the Environment Agency are extremely upset by today's incident. All our thoughts and sympathies are with our colleague's family and friends.

'We will be mounting a full investigation into the circumstances surrounding the incident and fully co-operating with the HSE investigation.'

The Environment Agency has been dredging the shallow Old Bedford - a navigable man-made river which flows from Cambridgeshire to Salter's Lode, near Downham Market - for the past couple of weeks to manage flood risk in the area.

But both the river and its banks have become frozen during the recent cold snap.