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Family raise concerns about Chatham Historic Dockyard at inquest into death of man who fell into dock

A family say they have "grave concerns" about how a visitor attraction responded when their son died after falling into a dock.

Henry Lovell was found floating in the water at The Historic Dockyard Chatham on a day trip with his parents.

Emergency services at Chatham Dockyard. Photo C Lloyd
Emergency services at Chatham Dockyard. Photo C Lloyd

Dad Rupert Lovell questioned how staff and emergency services dealt with the incident during an inquest into his eldest son's death this week.

The 25-year-old, of Morley Drive, Horsmonden, was found in the water face down in the dock used to berth HMS Gannet on a sunny day on July 14 last year.

Mr Lovell questioned a lack of CCTV and staff not overseeing the area around the dock, plus a lack of attempt to recover his son from the water when he was seen floating.

He said the family "cannot process" why decisive action was not taken by dockyard staff "regardless of how he ended up in the water", the length of time it took to recover the body and it still could be a possibility he was pushed into the dock.

Witnesses said they heard "a loud splash" and could see a person in the water and a rucksack floating nearby.

"I saw a figure appear to surface but it didn't seem it was in distress" - Brian Mortby

But they believed he was a diver after seeing him appear to roll forward and kick down back under the surface.

Brian Mortby, who was visiting the dockyard with his wife and two grandchildren, told the coroner's court he was approaching the gang plank on the port side of HMS Gannet when he heard the splash.

He said he saw someone appearing to dive down wearing what he thought were flippers and stayed to see if the person would surface again.

HMS Gannet, a Victorian war ship, on display at The Historic Dockyard Chatham
HMS Gannet, a Victorian war ship, on display at The Historic Dockyard Chatham

Mr Mortby didn't see Mr Lovell hit the water but could see "bubbles and waves" so stayed to watch.

"I could see something floating which looked like a rucksack that was under the stern," he told the hearing at Archbishop's Palace in Maidstone on Monday.

"I saw a figure appear to surface but it didn't seem it was in distress. I thought it was someone diving.

"The world is a worse place without him" - Rupert Lovell

"I would be throwing in a life ring and shouting if they appeared in distress.

"Nothing else was happening, nobody else was on the dockside. At this point I thought something wasn't right."

Mr Mortby then went to find a member of staff on the ship to ask if they were expecting any divers working to carry out maintenance on the 19th century vessel.

That staff member was Clifford Vicary, the guide on duty on HMS Gannet that day, who contacted the dockyard's control room by radio.

He confirmed there was no diving taking place or permission granted for anyone to be in the dock.

Another visitor, Ian Foot, was on the opposite side of the ship after leaving submarine HMS Ocelot when he heard a splash.

The inquest is being heard at Archbishop's Palace in Maidstone. Picture: Andy Jones
The inquest is being heard at Archbishop's Palace in Maidstone. Picture: Andy Jones

He too saw a rucksack in the water but could not see a figure in there so went on board to the commander's cabin at the rear and described seeing "a body" just to the right of the centre of the ship.

Mr Foot went back to the deck and told Mr Vicary, who went to one of the ship's gun ports but could not see anything from that position and then moved to the upper deck at the rear of the ship and looked over the side.

Mr Vicary said he saw the figure and called the duty manager on the radio.

A van drove "at speed" across the main square to the dockside and at 11.27am – some seven minutes after the first reports were made – emergency services were called with the first vehicles arriving at 11.38am.

The call was then made to evacuate HMS Gannet.

"We had no way of getting into the dock to get to the person" - Clifford Vicary

The family arrived at the dockyard shortly after 11am and booked a tour of the ropery at midday after buying their tickets.

Mr and Mrs Lovell returned to their car for a cup of tea at about 11.15am and agreed to meet their son outside the exhibit at 11.50am.

As they walked past HMS Gannet en route to the ropery, they noticed emergency vehicles parked up at the ship and an ambulance driving past them.

Neither parent had concern for their son, the court heard.

But Mr Lovell said in a "throw away comment" to his wife as they walked past he hoped "Henry hadn't got himself into trouble".

The Historic Dockyard in Chatham
The Historic Dockyard in Chatham

She replied saying: "You shouldn't joke."

The Health and Safety Executive will not be carrying out an investigation as it was "not under their jurisdiction", assistant coroner for Mid-Kent and Medway, Katrina Hepburn said.

The organisation did note guard rails and "adequate safety signage" were in place.

But questions were raised about why dockyard staff had not attempted to pull Mr Lovell from the water.

Mr Vicary told the inquest he believed there was "no point" in trying to rescue Mr Lovell because he was lying lifeless in the water.

The family's lawyer Laura Profumo asked if he was in a position to know Mr Lovell was dead and not just unconscious.

"No," Mr Vicary replied.

The guide, who has worked at the dockyard for 17 years, said nothing similar had happened before.

Ms Profumo asked if training had been provided for someone in the dock who was "unconscious or unable to respond".

"Unfortunately, it didn't occur apart from being told you don't put yourself in danger," Mr Vicary replied.

"All procedures are regularly reviewed in line with new information and practices as they were after this incident" - Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust

"The trouble is it had not happened before."

He said refresher health and safety training is provided to existing and new staff at the start of each season.

"We had no way of getting into the dock to get to the person. We didn't have any hooks and if a life ring had been dropped there's no way it would have been able to acquire a person," Mr Vicary said.

He confirmed there had been "no attempt" to pull Mr Lovell to shore because he was 20 feet from the dockside and "too far in the water" adding there was no lifeboat in the dock at the time.

Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust, which runs the site, has released a statement relating to the inquest proceedings.

Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust said in a statement relating to the inquest that safety is its top priority
Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust said in a statement relating to the inquest that safety is its top priority

It said: "What happened to Mr Lovell was tragic, and our hearts go out to his family.

"The health and safety of our visitors, employees and all those who live and work within the environs of The Historic Dockyard Chatham is always our priority.

"We are proud to have an excellent safety record and have very robust procedures in place covering all aspects of our business.

"We are never complacent. All procedures are regularly reviewed in line with new information and practices as they were after this incident.

"In the case of any situation involving water our responsibilities are very clear and robust, designed to comply or exceed all relevant safety regulations.

"These require us to render all possible immediate assistance at the scene, without endangering the rescuer or others, and simultaneously summoning the emergency services as was the case with Mr Lovell."

The inquest is expected to conclude on Thursday.

For more information on why we cover inquests, click here

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