‘I looked back and saw the bubbles where Ryan had been’ – Woman describes seeing her boyfriend drown in Bawsey Pits tragedy

PUBLISHED: 06:30 26 February 2014 | UPDATED: 11:18 26 February 2014

A 'Danger' sign at Bawsey pits where two people drowned yesterday in seperate incidents. Picture: Ian Burt

A 'Danger' sign at Bawsey pits where two people drowned yesterday in seperate incidents. Picture: Ian Burt

Archant © 2013

A woman has told how she struggled in vain to save her boyfriend from drowning, and watched the bubbles rise as he slipped beneath the surface of the water.

Bawsey Pits map Bawsey Pits map

Ryan Pettengell died while swimming at Bawsey Pits during last summer’s heatwave, the second victim on a day of double tragedy at the former quarry near King’s Lynn in which a 16-year-old boy also drowned.

At an inquest in Norwich yesterday, Norfolk senior coroner Jacqueline Lake raised questions over safety at the site, where swimming is banned, and will outline her concerns in a report to the pit owners, local authorities and police.

Mr Pettengell, 41, of Railway Road, King’s Lynn, had been relaxing with friends and their children at the pits when he decided to swim over to an island to join his girlfriend Lauren Cole, who had told police officers searching for missing Umar Balogun that she had seen something there.

In a statement read to the inquest jury, Ms Cole described how she watched Mr Pettengell get into difficulties and then swam out to help him.

Emergency services at Bawsey Pits. Picture: Ian Burt Emergency services at Bawsey Pits. Picture: Ian Burt

“I saw him swim about half way and then he began to slow down. He said in a breathless voice ‘Get me a stick, get me a log’.

“I ripped off a branch and swam out to him. I held the branch but it wouldn’t float. I grabbed his arm and started to pull him. I was being pulled under and I had to swim back to the side,” she said.

“As I swam back I could see him going under. I looked back and I saw the bubbles where Ryan had been.”

Police and fire teams were called to help, though the police officers at the scene at the time were unable to help at the time as they were not strong enough swimmers, the inquest heard.

‘What happens if someone accidentally falls in the water?’

Ryan Pettengell’s best friend has called for improved safety at the flooded quarry where the 41-year-old lost his life.

Wesley Moule said life rings or other measures were needed to prevent another tragedy at the pits.

Yesterday’s inquest heard that installing such equipment could often have the reverse effect by encouraging people to swim, and were often targets for vandalism.

But Mr Moule said: “What happens if someone accidentally falls in the water?

“They should have the safety facilities, and they need to improve the signs.”

He said Mr Pettengell’s attempt to help the police, which led to him getting in the water, showed his friend’s generosity of spirit.

“Ryan, being the kind of guy he was, didn’t care for his own safety. I can’t fault him for it.

“Maybe he panicked, and when you do that you are on a slippery slope. But it was a tragic accident.”

He said Mr Pettengell, godfather to his daughter, was his best friend, with whom he shared a passion for hunting, fishing and motorbikes.

The pit owners last night encouraged site users to heed the safety messages which have been in place for many years.

Swimming in the lakes, which are deep and thick with undergrowth, is banned, but the warning signs are ignored by many people.

Mr Pettengell’s body was eventually found by fire crews around 7.30pm that night, two hours before Mr Balogun’s was recovered from another lake.

The jury returned a conclusion that Mr Pettengell had died as the result of an accident.

They were told he suffered from heart problems and had broken his wrist six weeks previously, though best friend Wesley Moule said he was a good swimmer.

He said the group had assumed Mr Pettengell was joking when he first called for help, adding: “It wasn’t until we saw him going under and not come back up again that we thought there’s something seriously not right.”

Firefighter Lee Broadhurst, who was involved in the search, said Mr Pettengell was likely to have been out of his depth.

During the inquest, questions were raised about adequate ‘no swimming’ signage near the sandy area where Mr Pettengell drowned.

West Norfolk Borough Council has since recommended Sibelco UK improve safety through better maintenance of warning signs, new signs showing the most dangerous areas and displaying emergency contact details, and planting to prevent access to the water.

Victoria Hopps from West Norfolk Borough Council said the council would be taking no further action against the company, and that it was up to Sibelco UK to carry out an appropriate risk assessment.

“It’s a difficult site to police when people ignore the warnings even the day after this happened,” she said.


  • The sad fact is that people don't understand two things. First, how deep the water is, second, how COLD it is, even on the hottest summer days (because it is so deep). The temperature factor is important as even strong swimmers can get into trouble with cramp and breathing problems. It would be very sad if it the water was fenced off -- not least as this could lead to "fencing-off" happening in other gravel pits -- but if people keep ignoring the warnings and dying as a result there many be no alternative.

    Report this comment

    gilded beams

    Wednesday, February 26, 2014

  • Lets hope they don't do OTT and fence it off like that have a Little Broad, Whittlingham, as that is an over reaction.

    Report this comment


    Wednesday, February 26, 2014

  • It amazes me how people expect others to take more responsibility for their actions. There are no swimming signs there, yet into the water they still went, the reason why is not important. No swimming means that full stop, the police don't need to find more victims. If feel for the man's family, but the blame lies solely with him.

    Report this comment


    Wednesday, February 26, 2014

  • I had always been aware, even as a child, that swimming in flooded quarry and mine workings has always been a no-no. Everybody should know that (one would hope), but the sad and tragic circumstances of the events on one day last year suggest otherwise. The tragedy was thus all the more poignant because Ryan Pettengell was actually trying to assist the Police in finding Umar Balogun, who later also was found, drowned in the other lake. The fact that he and Lauren Cole had both made a conscious choice that they felt it was Ok to swim in the lake however cannot be ignored and we must question why they felt the messages signs warning of the dangers of swimming there were ignored or did not apply to them. Had they seen the signs? Had anyone spoken to them about the dangfers of swimming in the lakes? Given the locatrion of teh tgragedy, it is possible that they could have got there on foot, entered via Sandy Lane and not even seen any signs. There was a time not too many years ago, when the Bawsey Pits were managed by British Industrial Sand and then by Hepworth Minerals that they used to have staff who patrolled the area, ensuring visitors were not putting themselves in danger by swimming in the lakes, reminding people to remove their picnic debris (and worse), maintain the trim trail and children's playground equipment accross the site, prevent anti-social behaviour and maintaining the fences etc. Sadly, all that good effort seems to have fallen by the wayside since Sibelco took over the quarrying at Bawsey and the level of detritus and obvious neglect accross the site last summer was an obvious indication that they do not seem to care for the area in the same way. Over the winter months, much effort has been expended in clearing up some of the rubbish from the site but still much remains and the recent warm weekends have seen a return to picnic & barbeque debris, drink bottles and cans etc being left around the lakes. I have no doubt it will not be long before someone is considering entering the lakes for a swim and the lessons of the past when Ryan Pettengell and Umar Balogun tragically lost their lives could be repeated. All that is left there nowas a reminder is a sad and pitiful empty flower vase lying on its side by the waters edge. The flowers are long gone. 6 months further on, there are no new warning signs, the fences have not been replaced where they were cut down so the emergency vehicles could get access during the search last August. All that has happened is that the car park is closed off. Fencing is not an answer - the larger lake probably has a perimeter of around 3 to 4 miles and before long they will probably be broken down. My view is that the only answer is for Sibelco to start having someone on duty around the lakes. Such an effort to educate the visitors to the area would be welcomed by all those who already use the Bawsey Park and it can only help to raise the standard of its maintenance and aftercare. This area should be viewed as a valuable local resource for rest and recreation, education and enjoyment - not a venue for tragedy, risk, anti-social behaviour and neglect. I would have expected that in the intervening time since the tragedy, some work would have been done to prepare the area for the inevitable influx of visitors that will come to the Bawsey Park this summer - possibly some warning signs at more of the access points and at those areas where entry to the water is easily possible. Nothing has been done except removal of several skips of rubbish and that is probably out of shame when the site was under the spotlight as custom and practice over recent years has just been to allow this to accumulate, year, on year, on year. Come on Sibelco, "man-up". You have taken the sand, It's time to give something back and manage your liabilities properly, in the interests of the community you work in.

    Report this comment


    Wednesday, February 26, 2014

  • “The sad fact is that people don't understand two things.” 1) The meaning of the words “No Swimming”. 2) What to do when in trouble in the water. The late Hugh Falkus made a “World in action” program “Salmo the Leaper”; it can be seen on “youtube”. The piece of interest is when Hugh, dressed in waders, and fully clothed throws himself at the age of 60+ into an icy salmon river. Everyone could learn something from this demonstration of what to do.

    Report this comment

    The Fortean

    Wednesday, February 26, 2014

  • After these tragedies last year I saw pictures of a middle aged woman and her dog swimming there. Unbelieveable. Some people think rules don't apply to them.

    Report this comment


    Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The views expressed in the above comments do not necessarily reflect the views of this site

More news stories

Yesterday, 16:13

The resumption of the search for Corrie McKeague at the Milton landfill site will begin this week, police have confirmed.

Yesterday, 13:16

A woman described as “terrifying” the moment the blood spattered victim of a multiple stabbing walked into her Ely home.

Yesterday, 12:32

People flocked to Ely in their droves to enjoy the 17th Apple Festival.

Yesterday, 17:00

Children across Cambridgeshire are top of the class when it comes to artistic achievements, thanks to the ‘trailblazing’ work of Cambridgeshire Music.

Most read stories

Digital Edition

Read the Ely Standard e-edition E-edition

Show Job Lists

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter