In 1947 a lifeboat named Edward, Prince of Wales put out from the town of Mumbles in Wales, in a teriffic storm, to aid the stricken ship Samtampa.
Mumbles sounds like the name of a British village in a Stella Gibbons satire, but the business afoot that night was in earnest.
The Edward's coxswain, William Gannon, had previously received gold and silver medals for saving life in storms. Among the unpaid volunteer crew was William Howell, a survivor of a wartime torpedoing. Friends and relatives begged him not to go out -- the storm was too fierce. They all knew that some years previously, six men had died when a boat from the same station had overturned in a similar storm. Howell replied: "I must go. They came after me when I was shipwrecked, and I cannot leave them out there." Another of the crew, Richard Smith, had just been demobilized from the armed forces and was due to be married two days later.
Attempting to rescue the people aboard the Santampa the Edward overturned in the mountainous seas and its entire crew of eight perished.
The late historian Arthur Bryant wrote a few days later:
"It is by such grandeur of spirit that a nation lives. These men were united in fidelity to their duty towards their fellow-men....They were animated, not by hatred or self-seeking, but by love, one without exclusion or exception at the service of mankind. They did not ask whether those they died to save were politically or ideologically worthy of their sacrifice, whether they were richer than themselves or poorer, whether they were Britons or men of another race, whether they were brown or white, whether their shirts were black or red. It was enough that they were fellow-creatures in need of succour. In doing so they followed, consciously or unconsciously, in the steps of the Founder of the Christian Faith. They made the name of their country glorious throughout the world and left to those who come after an inspiration and a faith."
Fast forward 60 years to 2007, and to an incident that throws a certain light on the burgeoning health-and-safety culture of modern Britain. Then an eight-year-old girl, Bethany Ganderton, fell into a small lake near Manchester. Her ten-year-old step-brother, named Jordan Lyon, bravely jumped into the water to try and save her, and got into difficulties himself. It was, apparently, a dull and dark day and hard to see what was happening.
Two fisherman, both over 60, rescued Bethany. Two fit and young Police Community Support Officers (CSOs) then arrived on the scene -- but did nothing except radio for help, on the grounds that they were not "trained" to rescue drowning children. Jordon was still missing and possibly struggling in the dark water. One, perhaps acting on a flash of inspired initiative, eventually actually went to fetch help. By the time help arrived Jordan Lyon was dead.
The Assistant Chief Constable of Manchester Police, David "Dave" Thompson, evidently determined to miss an excellent opportunity to shut up, has said that the behavior of the officers was fully justified.
First, according to Assistant Chief Constable Thompson, PCSOs are not trained to handle drowning incidents.
Second, there was no indication where Jordan was in the pond. Third, visibility was poor. Fourth, by the time they arrived, the boy was already "probably" dead. And, anyway, only one PCSO stood by on the bank contemplating the scene -- the other one had, after all, cycled away to get help.
That there was no indication where the boy was is hard to believe, since his stepfather and a policeman were able to find his body within minutes of entering the water when they arrived.
As to poor visibility in the water, a former Labour Home Secretary, David Blunkett, who is blind (and who set up the Community Police Support scheme), said: "I would like to think that you or I, when we arrived on the bank as just normal human beings...would have a go."
One commentator remarked: "Unfortunately for poor Jordan Lyon, PCSOs have been well trained to overcome the natural human instinct to save a drowning child.... Trained not to attempt something for which they had not been trained....
"Officers from all emergency services are encouraged to behave in this shameful way by the training they receive. Their superiors know they can only be sued by 'health and safety' for what they do, not for what they do not do. So they are encouraged to do nothing."
A former Tory Home Secretary, Ann Widdecomb, asked: "What were those PCSO's thinking as they stood there? Did they need training to know that you die if you breathe in water for long enough? Did they need to have permission to imagine how they would feel if it were their child? Did they have any pity, dammit, for the small drowning being?
However, author Frederick Forsyth offered a somewhat sardonic explanation that seems to cover everything: "They had not been trained to wade."
There is now a suggestion little Jordan Lyon be awarded a posthumous George Cross for valor. I imagine Arthur Bryant would have supported it. And that the men of the Mumbles lifeboat would have supported it too.
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