Police and University officials have held a press conference this afternoon, calling for students to “look at this fourth incident and… reflect very deeply on how alcohol plays a very significant part in putting your body at risk.”
The press conference took place in the car park of Durham Amateur Rowing Club near the location where the 20-year Northern Irish student who was living out of college was found.
Dave Orford, Assistant Chief Constable of Durham Police, said: “At around 1:45am this morning a member of the public contacted the police saying they could hear someone shouting from the river banks.
“Police officers from Durham City attended immediately and brought emergency equipment. When they got here they saw a young male who appeared heavily intoxicated.
“The officers called for further assistance from fire and rescue due to the serious nature of how the male was, they took the immediate decision to put their own lives at risk and formed a human chain and went into the river and tried to pull him out.
“Fire and rescue attended and thanks to their help they were able to pull out the officers and the male.
“In my opinion that saved his life.”
The emergency services threw the student a flotation buoy but his hands were too cold to grasp it. Then a number of officers waded in to form a human chain in order to rescue him.
It is unknown why the student was in this location at the time but Orford explained “that will come out as part of the investigation.”
Orford described the location as “you can see the steep nature of the river, it may not look fast flowing but I know from living here myself it is a very dangerous river underneath with twigs and branches that can snag you.”
Orford commented: “We’ve got to thank that member of the public, because if we hadn’t had that call we could have been looking at a very serious tragedy and it certainly would have been a fatality.”
The police are now investigating the incident, Orford explained. “What we’re doing now is a very detailed investigation into what happened prior to and we’re keeping an open mind but we’re tracking back through friends and people who he was out with but we don’t think there was anyone else involved at this stage.
Orford stated that “we’ve got no evidence at that point that there was any third party involvement
“From what I believe so far the reckless consumption of alcohol was a key feature in this incident.”
At the time of the conference between 12:30 and 1:30pm, the student had been released from hospital suffering from hypothermia and was with officers giving a statement.
Orford said: “My appeal to the student body is to look at this fourth incident and absolutely reflect very deeply on how alcohol plays a very significant part in putting your body at risk
Orford added: “I think from my perspective and the police perspective the key message to land is personal responsibility, you put yourself at risk, you put the emergency services at risk and you can actually take large steps yourself to be aware of putting yourself in that position.
“Enjoy the university, enjoy your time here but don’t put yourself at risk.
“Durham City is the safest university city in England, I think the student body should reflect on not making it unsafe.
“I think the only link I can make at this point, is the proximity of the river and the consumption of alcohol.”
Orford reassured that they were working in partnership with the University: “I know the University are working very closely in relation to this and they are treating it very seriously and the highest level.
Update: PC at scene of incident describes river as “absolutely freezing”
Durham City Police Officer PC Simon Cutter described the scene of the rescue last night as “absolutely freezing”.
He said “anyone wouldn’t last long who was in the river at the temperature it was last night.”
Officers had to clamber down an 8 foot drop to reach the student.
Cutter described the situation of the very icy river bank and car park as “pitch black, there was no light at all, other than the little torches we had.
“I just followed the voices and walked along the river bank until I luckily found where he was.”
The 23-year-old described his role in the six-person human chain as “tying ropes, holding on to my colleagues, anchoring off the bank so that when they’re at the front there not falling in and then I had two people behind me holding my trousers.
“The bottom [of the river] is just like thick clear silt and his feet were just anchored in the river and he had no chance of climbing [out].
“He’s just very, very lucky that there was somebody there to contact us.”
It is still unknown how long the student was in the river for. Cutter added that the student “doesn’t have any real recognition at all up until the point where he was trying to climb up the river bank.”
Cutter commended the member of public who called the police regarding the student in the river as “an absolute miracle that he was here at 1:45 morning.”
The PC expressed deep concern of the consumption of alcohol and the prominence of such incidents. “We’re all just concerned at how long this is going to go on for, we don’t want to be taking anyone else out of the river who has lost their life.
“There’s only so much we can do in putting people off [alcohol] and if three students who have lost their lives is not a deterrent for people, then we need to start looking at doing something else in trying to spot something like this happening.”
Cutter said that the operation was very dangerous. He commented: “In terms of putting our lives on the line you don’t really think of that, what I was thinking was that there’s someone in the river shouting help, what have we got that we can use to get him out of the water.
“Obviously we’re not fire and rescue so we don’t have long ladders and things like that, we were just lucky that we were at the police station at the time we got the call so we were able to grab all our life saving flotations equipment and bring it down with us.
“We managed to anchor that and tie it to a tree and chuck that in the water, and support him into putting his arms in their air getting him through the circle and flotation device but being in there that long he was growing increasingly difficult in replying and he was getting to the point where he was going to go unconscious.
“Obviously it was that cold all his movement was really slow and we were concerned about his strength and whether he could hold on.”
Photographs: Oliver Mawhinney