Coroner’s warning on sea dangers following swimmer’s death

Fran McKeown
Fran McKeown

FRIENDS and family of a well-loved woman who died after being swept out to sea during a Christmas Day swim last year are calling for more safety measures to be put in place to warn swimmers.

Fran McKeown, 51, of Bexleigh Avenue, St Leonards, died at the Conquest Hospital later the same evening due to brain injuries caused by drowning.

An inquest into her death was held on Tuesday (October 1) and her partner of 15 years, John North, urged the council to step up safety measures and patrol the beach throughout the year in the light of the tragic accident.

Coroner Alan Craze also said Ms McKeown’s death should serve as a ‘salutary reminder’ about the dangers of rough seas.

At the hearing Nick Sangster, resort services manager for Hastings Borough Council (HBC), said the red flag system designed to warn swimmers of unsafe seas, only operated from May to September and told Mr North it would be ‘very difficult to control 12 miles of coastline’ during the entire year.

Judy Price, a close friend of Ms McKeown, said: “People go swimming on Christmas Day often for charity and I would like to see much greater awareness and safety measures brought in by the council.

“On Christmas Day last year across the country other councils made the decision to close the beaches because of the rough seas.

“There also needs to be more education in schools about the dangers, seeing as we are in a seaside town.”

Ms McKeown was with a group of people on St Leonards beach beside Azur, Marina Pavilion, on Christmas morning who met up together to do the charity swim.

Several ran into the sea but came back because of the rough seas. But as Ms McKeown, a community development worker for Hastings Voluntary Action, tried to return to shore she stumbled back after the undercurrent caught her and swept her away.

Mr North said: “She was carried by a wave that was 15 to 20 foot high. This all happened within 90 seconds. I went into the sea myself to try and rescue her. I could see her up ahead trying to swim back but the waves were too strong.

“Fran had no intention of swimming in the sea that day. She was not a strong swimmer and only wanted a dip and get her feet wet. She was very much looking forward to a holiday in Kenya on December 28.”

At the inquest he paid tribute to her. He said: “Fran was a very positive person, incredibly optimistic and sociable who loved life.

“She was a dedicated mother and partner and the hub of this family.”

Another swimmer, Jim McSweeney, said an ‘enormous wave’ hit Ms McKeown on the head and she was swept eastwards towards the pier.

He said: “Up to four of us attempted to go into the sea to swim but three of us were being knocked about by the waves.”

Bartholomew Long, another swimmer, said he was also swept out to sea just like Ms McKeown.

He said: “As soon as I was waist deep I was dragged off my feet, pulled out to sea and struggled to get back to shore.

“I was genuinely scared because of the difficulties I was having even though I’m a strong swimmer.

“I was completely stuck in the surf of the waves, which came crashing down on me. A man came to my aid and helped me out of the water.”

Mr Long said he could see Ms McKeown being pulled further out by the current.

Hastings RNLI launched both its inshore and all-weather lifeboats in a bid to rescue her.

Steven Warne, coxswain, said the winds were up to force 9 and sea waves were up to three metres high.

Firefighters were also called to the rescue and Maxwell Gilbert was also to go into the water and bring Ms McKeown back to shore by grabbing her arms.

Firefighters tried to revive her on the beach before paramedics took over. But Ms McKeown, who had also sustained two head injuries, later died at the Conquest.

Coroner Alan Craze recorded a verdict of death by misadventure.

He said: “I would hope that this tragic death can serve as a salutary reminder that the sea has got to be treated with respect and even when you may think it’s safe there are things going on underneath that are dangerous. In this case the undercurrent caused her (Ms McKeown) to be taken out to sea.”

Kevin Boorman, HBC spokesman, said: “Fran McKeown was well-known to many of us at the council, making this tragic incident very close to home.

“As the coroner said, it showed that the sea has got to be treated with respect at all times. We would urge any organisers of events involving the sea to contact us, so that we can work with them to ensure that a full risk assessment is carried out, and that appropriate safety measures are in place to deal with risks that are identified.”