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Parents sue trip organisers after Canterbury teenager Alice Barnett drowns in South Africa

By Jodie Nesling

The distraught parents of a Canterbury teenager who drowned on a volunteering trip to South Africa are suing the organisers.

Alice Barnett, 19, and 21-year-old Summer Robertson died after they were overcome by fierce waves at Woody Cape.

They were paddling with three others when a violent rip tide swept them away, with the others managing to swim to safety.

Alice Barnett died in South Africa
Alice Barnett died in South Africa

The pair were on a 10-week trip with Lattitude Global Volunteering to a township in Walmer in the Western Cape.

The placement was part of the government-funded International Citizen Service.

Soon after the tragedy, the anguished families discovered a catalogue of safety blunders including a failure to carry out a safety assessment at the beach.

An inquest held in the UK heard that the charity was unaware how treacherous the water was but had it followed its own guidelines and undertaken local research it would have been quickly established.

Alice’s grieving parents, Suzi Barnett and Pete Gallagher, were horrified to discover that when locals were subsequently asked if they would enter the sea, such was the danger, their response would be to laugh in amazement.

Furthermore, the beach trip formed part of a debrief session and was never meant to be part of the programme.

Charity volunteer Alice Barnett drowned in South Africa
Charity volunteer Alice Barnett drowned in South Africa

Volunteers were taken by the manager inshore to the remote stretch of beach in December 2014.

An inquest, which took place in 2015 and recorded a narrative verdict, heard the manager was the first to enter the water.

The general guidelines state that volunteers should never wade or swim in areas not manned by lifeguards.

The coroner later sent a damning report to charity boss Joanne Smithson, which outlined the concerns.

Speaking to the BBC, the parents say taking legal action against the charity is a final resort after learning they will not receive any financial compensation. They also say Lattitude has never apologised or taken accountability.

"She was the most perfect example of a human being" - Pete Gallagher

Mr Gallagher says that the mothers of Alice and Summer, from Shropshire, attended a meeting with directors and were distraught to discover they had limited detail of the tragedy.

The actor and writer blasted the firm for not researching the case before the meeting.

He said he wanted bosses to know every single detail when they met the mothers, and wanted them “to talk with some kind of knowledge about what happened”.

Alice, described by her father as the “most perfect example of a human being”, was due to return home just four days later.

Her brother, Jordi, who attended Canterbury High School, has set up a JustGiving page in her memory.

Alice Barnett drowned in the sea at Woody Cape, near Port Elizabeth
Alice Barnett drowned in the sea at Woody Cape, near Port Elizabeth

A passionate animal and human rights campaigner, she had previously enjoyed a volunteering trip to Cambodia and ensured she researched gap-year firms in order to enjoy meaningful voluntary work.

However, the family are grateful to parent firm Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) boss Philip Goodwin, who they say has been incredibly supportive.

In a statement, he wrote: “We are profoundly sorry that Alice and Summer died so tragically while on placement with Lattitude.

“We can’t begin to imagine what the last three years have been like for their family and friends.

“We also recognise that we could have worked with the parents much more constructively in the months immediately following this accident.

“We have stayed in close touch with them and will always be available to them.”

Lattitude is no longer a participant in the International Citizen Service programme. Its contract was terminated by VSO following these incidents.

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