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Thursday, 24 July 2014

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'Let's get out of here' - last words of Cumbrian floods PC Bill Barker

PC Bill Barker shouted “let’s get out of here” to a colleague only seconds before the tragic bridge collapse that claimed his life, an inquest has heard.

Bill Barker photo
PC Bill Barker

PC Barker, 44, died when Workington’s Northside bridge collapsed in the devastating floods last November 20.

PC Mark Ormerod told an inquest at Cleator Moor Civic Hall today of the horrific moment when PC Barker, his partner of six years, fell to his death from the crumbling bridge.

PC Ormerod said: “There was a dull rumble and then a crack and I saw a wall and pavement fall into the water. There was a flash of yellow (PC Barker’s hi-visibility jacket) dropping out of sight through the hole. I crawled to the edge to look over and all I could see was a jumble of stone blocks with dirty frothy water passing over.

“There was no sign of Billy. I thought he was under the rubble or had been washed away. I shouted his name but there was no response. I saw the piece of road on which Billy had been standing but there was no sign of Billy and I thought he was probably dead.”

The officers had been called to the scene after reports that a car had gone into the river during the floods. They were on the bridge but stopped around 15 to 20ft from the lip of the collapsed section. They retreated after seeing the gaping void.

On their way off the bridge PC Barker looked over a ledge for the car they believed was in the river when the section he was standing on collapsed beneath him.

The opening day of the inquest was shown footage of the devastating bridge collapse and heard from three Stagecoach workers – David Hoare, Kevin Sheehan and Richard Burgess – who witnessed the tragic events.

Mr Hoare, service quality inspector for Stagecoach, reading from a statement taken after the tragedy, revealed how he was out with a driver in a bus in the early hours of November 20 checking that routes were clear. He said that as he approached Northside Bridge he could see a set of lights in the middle of the bridge.

The bus parked and he got out. “I looked at the bridge in front of the stationary vehicle and I could see part of the bridge work was missing,” he told the inquest. “I could see another three vehicles approaching the bridge so I walked towards them to stop them crossing the bridge. About 10 yards away from me the bridge collapsed.”

Mr Hoare went on to stop other traffic approaching the bridge from Workington.

Mr Hoare described seeing “a crescent-shaped hole in the road on the bridge’’ and “feeling a tremble and a kind of rippling effect’’ before the collapse. Mr Hoare and Mr Sheenan, on opposite ends of the bridge, blocked traffic from driving into danger.

Mr Sheenan said: “Had David Hoare and I not acted so quickly then more lives would have been lost. This realisation has caused real shock and I was relieved to have been able to help as much as we did.’’

The officer's widow Hazel was among those present at Cleator Moor Civic Hall on Thursday morning as proceedings got underway – nearly 11 months on from the 44-year-old’s death.

Earlier a jury was told of the extreme weather that caused the floods and the emergency as it unfolded.

Chief Inspector Kevin Greenhow, from Cumbria police, also gave evidence. Reading from his statement, he told the inquest how preparations had been put in place to respond to a potential emergency before the floods as it became apparent there could be extreme weather. This included bringing in extra staff and putting plans together with other agencies.

An email was sent to all staff in the force setting out who would be in charge and how their main aims were to prevent loss of life and serious harm.

He revealed how there were early reports of some footbridges that needed to be closed. But, to his knowledge, the force’s command structure were not told of any concerns about major road bridges.

The jury was  told how pathologist Dr Alison Armour oversaw a post mortem examination on the body of PC Barker, a father-of-four who lived in Egremont and had been a serving officer for 25 years.

A statement from Dr Armour said he fell about 20ft into the fast flowing River Derwent. A combination of blunt head trauma and drowning caused his death, her examinations found. She believed he was knocked unconscious after striking his head – probably on a rock – and then drowned.

HM Coroner for North and West Cumbria David Roberts had begun the inquest just after 10am. He explained to the jury of five men and five women the processes and law involved in an inquest before calling evidence.

PC Barker fell 20ft into the fast-flowing River Derwent just after 5am. His body was found washed up eight miles downstream on Allonby beach seven hours later by a passing motorist, Paul Murphy.

A number of other witnesses including police officers and members of the public is due to give evidence during the inquest, which is expected to last three days.

 

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