Wigan rugby player likely to have died from cardiac arrest while trying to save children from rip tide

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A former professional rugby league player likely died from a cardiac arrest - not drowning - when he was caught in a riptide and dragged out to sea with his children, an inquest heard.

David Fell, from Wigan, was staying at Haven’s Reighton Sands holiday park, near Filey in North Yorkshire, when the tragedy happened on July 22.

An inquest heard he entered the water when his teenage son and daughter got into difficulties. The girl was seriously injured and suffered an abdominal aortic rupture.

The RNLI lifeboat eventually retrieved Mr Fell’s body.

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Assistant coroner for North Yorkshire Oliver Longstaff ruled he had not drowned due to the lack of fluid found on his lungs, and instead considered it was likely he had suffered a cardiac arrest brought on by the stress of the situation, though this could not be conclusively proved.

Though a post-mortem examination initially established Mr Fell died from immersion in water, pathologist Dr David Scoones revised his opinion after hearing witness accounts that Mr Fell had not been seen to struggle.

He said Mr Fell had a severely narrowed coronary artery that would have left him at increased risk of cardiac arrest.

Fiona Fell said her husband and children would not have gone into the water if there were signs warning people about rip tides.

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She said: “I can say that there were definitely no warning signs, flags, lifebuoys or any lifeguards on duty on the beach that day.

“I am very diligent with regards to looking for these things, as my son suffers with epilepsy. If I’d known the potential dangers of ‘rip tides’ and currents I would have never allowed them to go into the sea.

“I feel adequate measures must be put in place immediately in order to prevent another family from grieving forever. Just as we were.

“We, as a family, feel this has been a catastrophic accident waiting to happen.”

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The inquest heard the RNLI and Scarborough Council decided in 2019 that despite the higher risk of rip currents, it was “not practical” to extend lifeguarding coverage to Reighton Gap.

Instead, lifeguards stationed at Filey Bay would patrol the stretch in a vehicle and additional signage was installed.

Although Haven’s land ownership ends at the foot of the path from the park, regional health and safety manager Craig Valentine said that in 2018 they entered into a voluntary partnership with the RNLI to educate customers about water safety.

This included signs, leaflets, maps and a welcome email including links to the RNLI website.

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Haven stated they would fund further signage at the end of the 2019 season, but the project was suspended in the first Covid lockdown.

In January 2021, Haven received 250 safety leaflets and in February they contacted the RNLI to inquire about the new signs. The council agreed to erect them, but by mid-July they had not been received.

Scarborough Council’s head of projects Christopher Bourne visited Reighton Gap following Mr Fell’s death and noted a lifebuoy, emergency telephone in working order and three “Water is Unpredictable” signs on the route from the caravan park.

Since the tragedy, the posters have been replaced by signs warning of the lack of a lifeguard and a further risk assessment of Reighton Gap has been commissioned.

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Concluding, Mr Longstaff said: “This was a tragedy for the Fell family, The members of the public who rescued his children showed considerable bravery and heroism.

“This incident was not anybody’s fault in a legal sense and there was no breach of duty to David Fell.

“I find it significant that none of the witnesses put Mr Fell at the scene of the rescue. He was a strong swimmer and family man and I find it inconceivable that he would not have wanted to participate in the rescue of his children. Nobody heard him shout for help. The next time anyone saw him, he was motionless.

“Dr Scoones at no point offered drowning as the cause of death. I asked him to review his evidence in light of the witness statements, and it seems that the stress of entering the water may have increased the risk of cardiac arrest from underlying heart disease. The emergency involving his children exacerbated this stress.

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“It is an understandable assumption made on the day that he drowned, but this is not proved and the medical evidence is categorically that he did not drown. The cause of death is natural, but in my view this does not do justice to the circumstances.”

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