Drowned boy shouted for help as friend tried to find missing lifebelt

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A boy, 12, who fell into a river while playing on a rope swing with friends shouted for help before his death in the water, an inquest heard yesterday.

Alex Chappell swung himself over the River Medway in Maidstone, Kent, but the rope slipped from the wood it was attached to, causing him to fall in.

He resurfaced twice and shouted at two of his friends standing on the river bank to help but he sank beneath the water again – and failed to come back up.

The stepfather of one of Alex’s friends was alerted and he sprinted down from his nearby house before jumping into the water to try and save Alex.

But despite wading through cold, dark, murky water which was estimated to be up to 13ft deep in places, Steve Francis was unable to find him.

Alex was found almost two hours later, at 4.15pm, on the bank holiday of May 30 last year. A post-mortem examination later confirmed he had drowned.

Alex’s mother, gardener Gina Tweddell, told the inquest at County Hall, Maidstone, that Alex could swim but not strongly.

She said: “He had swimming lessons at primary school and had passed his five metres but he didn’t go swimming regularly. He could do the basics but he wasn’t very strong.”

She knew of the rope swing but understood it to be in woodland and not near a river.

Ms Tweddell also said Alex had not been swimming anywhere other than pools before and would have been unfamiliar with the river water which was clouded by boats churning up the riverbed.

The inquest heard that Alex had been into town with his two friends earlier that day before telling them on their way back to one of their houses that he wanted to swing on the rope.

After falling in, one of his friends said he tried to get a life-belt but found the container empty.

Three weeks before the local authority had checked the site and found the lifebelt was missing. It was replaced and checked weeks after the tragedy, on June 6, and found to be missing again.

Recording an accidental death verdict, Mid Kent and Medway coroner Patricia Harding said: “This isn’t a case, in my judgment, where the availability of lifebelts would have assisted.”

She added that she was concerned about the lack of warning signs given the closeness of the river to a children’s playground.