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Wales Online
Wales Online
Neil Shaw

Police expert explains why Nicola Bulley couldn't get out of the water

A police underwater search specialist said he believes Nicola Bulley fell into the River Wyre before floating downstream. Nicola Bulley sparked a nationwide mystery when she went missing while walking alongside the river with her dog.

A video of PC Matthew Thackray in St Michael’s on Wyre in Lancashire, where Ms Bulley is believed to have fallen in, was shown to the court. In it he said: “There is a large vertical slope from the bench and into the water.

“On the day there was a steady flown downstream.”

He went on: “The river was 4C, so almost freezing, and if she fell in the muscles would probably seize making it difficult to swim properly.”

He estimated she would have floated at a “metre a second” downstream.

PC Thackray is asked about his experiences of deaths by drowning where the water depth is “sufficient to be able to stand up”. He said: “I have attended a number of deaths where the water is chest deep and with a flat bottom with no flow to the water. You could avoid drowning by keeping calm and standing up, however, it doesn’t happen like that when you suddenly enter cold water.

"You gasp and you breathe in water and these drownings could have been prevented if they had kept calm and kept your head above the water but it’s never that simple. In this case you can’t put your foot down, the river was moving and even if you got to the point of safety it’s difficult to climb out.”

Asked by Sophie Cartwright KC, the barrister representing Nicola’s family, PC Thackray said the advice for if someone falls into cold water is to float. "If you try to swim you are impaired. Your muscles seize and you tire very quickly.

Two breaths of water would have been a “lethal dose” for Nicola Bulley, an expert has told her inquest in Preston.

Professor Michael Tipton said: “We estimate the temperature would have been around 3 to 5C (in the River Wyre), so there would be a particularly powerful cold-shock response.

“For somebody of Nicola’s size, it would have taken one or two breaths in of water to be a lethal dose.”

Professor Tipton said there would have been a “fairly rapid incapacitation” after Nicola Bulley fell into the River Wyre.

He told her inquest in Preston: “In my opinion, given the nature of the likely entry into the water, I would suspect Nikki had a gasp response under the water, initiating the drowning process.

“On the balance of probability there was a fairly rapid incapacitation due to the cold shock.”

It was also heard it could have been an estimated “20 to 30 seconds” before she lost consciousness.

Nicola may have only been able to hold her breath for “one or two seconds at best” in the river, an inquest into her death heard.

Cold water expert Dr Patrick Morgan said: “(After falling in) the heart rate goes excessively high, the blood pressure surges excessively high.

“The heart pumps no blood, and the brain switches off. The potential conscious time here quoted are optimistic… it is potentially shorter.

“On the occasion that the individual has taken that initial gasp on the surface of the water and then gone below, the duration would be 10 seconds that you could hold your breath, and very likely one or two seconds at best.”

Nicola had dropped her two young children at school before walking her dog by the river. She vanished, leaving the dog behind and her phone still connected to w work call on a bench.

Home Office pathologist Alison Armour, who carried out the post-mortem examination on the body of Ms Bulley, 45, said the evidence of water in her lungs and stomach led her to conclude the cause of death was drowning, and there was no other “third party” involved in her death.

Ms Bulley vanished after dropping her daughters, aged six and nine, at school, then taking her usual dog walk along the River Wyre in St Michael’s on Wyre, Lancashire, on January 27.

Her phone, still connected to a work Teams call, was found on a bench overlooking the water. Her body was found in the River Wyre around a mile from the bench, on February 19.

Ms Bulley’s partner, Paul Ansell, her sister Louise Cunningham and parents, Ernest and Dot Bulley, sat in the public gallery listening as Ms Armour was called as the first witness to give evidence at the two-day inquest hearing at the County Hall in Preston.

Dr James Adeley, Senior Coroner for Lancashire, asked Ms Armour to sum up her findings and conclusion following the post-mortem examination.

Ms Armour said: “I conclude the cause of death as drowning. The lungs themselves showed classical features we see in drownings.

“In my opinion Nicola Bulley was alive when she entered the water.”

Ms Armour said the presence of water in the lungs showed swallowing the liquid was an “active process” and therefore suggests Ms Bulley was alive at the time she went into the river.

She said there were no bleeding in the brain or natural diseases, only normal therapeutic levels of medication in her body and the low level of alcohol was consistent with this being the result of the natural process of decomposition of her body.

There was some bruising to Ms Bulley’s body but these did not contribute to her death, the inquest was told.

Dr Adeley asked the witness: “Is there any evidence of third-party involvement playing any part in her death?”

Ms Armour replied: “No, there was not.”

Ms Bulley, a mortgage adviser originally from near Chelmsford but living in Inskip, was immediately deemed a “high risk” missing person when she vanished, sparking a huge police search operation, with hundreds of local search volunteers and intense media and public interest.

Private underwater search specialists were also called in by her family amid a conspiratorial social media frenzy fuelling waves of sightseers and content creators visiting the scene.

Police had urged people not to speculate about the disappearance and maintained from early on there were no suspicious circumstances, and that Ms Bulley may have gone into the water due to an “issue” with her springer spaniel dog, Willow.

Ms Bulley’s family and friends said they did not believe the police “theory” and urged people to continue searching.

Paul Ansell, her partner of 12 years, gave TV interviews appealing for help – saying their daughters wanted their mummy home.

As the days passed and speculation continued online, Lancashire Police revealed Ms Bulley had struggled with alcohol and perimenopause.

This prompted widespread criticism for disclosing her personal information, with Home Secretary Suella Braverman and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak questioned about the police approach and the force facing investigation.

Earlier, shortly before the hearing began, the coroner Mr Adeley addressed the social media controversy surrounding Ms Bulley’s death.

He said the inquest would deal with only “proportionate evidence from reliable sources and not to explore all the theories by those who contributed to social media”.

The coroner added: “At the centre of this inquest are two children who have lost their mother, a partner, and parents who have lost a daughter.”

Mr Adeley warned if anyone had the “slightest idea” to disrupt the hearing they would be dealt with “immediately”.

The inquest hearing continues.

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