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River Exe ferryman tells of how he tried to save drowning granny

By Exeter Express and Echo  |  Posted: December 03, 2013

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A ferryman has told of his desperate attempt to save an 80-year-old passenger after she fell into a river moments after he had dropped her at a landing stage.

Harry Pinnington pulled the passenger ferry back to shore and leapt into the water to try to save grandmother Mrs Dorothy Stevens, a jury was told.

The young ferry man succeeded in grabbing her and holding her out of the water but she was already lifeless after the accident in the heart of Exeter.

Mr Pinnington told Exeter Crown Court how the accident happened during a heavy rain squall in July 2010 just after he had taken Mrs Stevens and her daughter Gillian Phillips to the canal side of Exeter Quay.

Exeter City Council, which runs the ferry through a contractor, and owns the landing stages at either side, are on trial accused of breaching health and safety rules.

The jury have been told that the steps were unsafe because they had uneven heights and depths and the single hand rail did not reach right the way down to the bottom.

The council have denied running an unsafe undertaking and failing to ensure the safety of Mrs Stevens and other passengers.

Women’s Institute stalwart Mrs Stevens, from Silverton, near Exeter, drowned after her collapsible walking stick broke as she was trying to get from the landing stage onto the first step.

Her daughter Gillian and grand daughter Melissa have already told the court how they saw her fall into the water and submerge because she could not swim.

The ferry, which is one of the oldest still in operation anywhere in Britain, is a raft pulled across the river by a ferryman using a wire which is strung from one side of the river to the other.

It is known as the Butts Ferry and was operated by Mr Richie O’Connell, who pays Exeter City Council for the licence and he employed Mr Pinnington as a summer job.

Mr Pinnington told the jury he took Melissa across first and she asked him to go back and pick up the two older women when a sudden rail squall blew in.

He took them to the canal side and saw them off the ferry safely and was half way back across the river before he realised there was a problem.

He said:”I saw the two ladies trying to negotiate the steps for a while. It was taking them longer than I would have expected.

“I was half way across when I heard a woman calling ‘oi’ and then I heard a scream and the next thing I saw was a woman falling in the river.

“The middle-aged lady and teenaged girl were both on the concrete steps above her and had been pulling on her arms. I thought she looked fine before she fell.

“I saw the old lady fall backwards as if the other woman had lost her grip. I saw her go flat on her back and roll into the River Exe. I started pulling for the bank, towards her.

“I was concerned the ferry might hit her in the water. I threw a life ring to her but could see she looked almost lifeless. I jumped in to try to pull her out.

“I pulled her and got her under the arms and asked her if she was all okay but her eyes were vacant and distant and I was unable to save her.

“It was quite common for elderly people to take their time climbing the first step.”

The jury heard earlier from Gillian and Melissa Phillips.

Gillian Phillips said she was trying to give her mother a hand up when the stick broke and she fell.

She said:”Mum was trying to get onto the first step. She took hold of the hand rail and I tried to grab her left arm but her stick broke and she fell in the water. She could not swim.”

She said her mother could cope with normal steps and had been on a coach trip a few weeks before in which she had got on and off the bus without difficulty.

Melissa Phillips said she knew her grandmother had arthritis and had stiff legs but saw her trying to get up the steps.

She said:”I did not see the stick break but if she had fallen directly backwards she would have landed on the surface below. She was holding onto the hand rail so she pitched to one side and went into the water.”

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