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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Jessica Murray Midlands correspondent

Police risked their lives to try to save boys from Solihull lake, inquest told

Left to right: Jack Johnson; brothers Finlay and Samuel Butler; and their cousin Thomas Stewart.
Left to right: Jack Johnson; brothers Finlay and Samuel Butler; and their cousin Thomas Stewart. Composite: Enterprise; West Midlands Police

Police officers risked their lives to form a human chain across a frozen lake in Solihull to try to reach four boys who drowned after falling through the ice, an inquest into their deaths has heard.

Brothers Samuel and Finlay Butler, aged eight and six, and their cousin Thomas Stewart, 11, had gone to Babbs Mill Lake, Kingshurst, on 11 December last year to feed the ducks, while Jack Johnson, 10, was skimming stones with friends.

The senior coroner Louise Hunt recorded drowning as a primary cause of death for all four boys, describing the incident as “a terrible accident”.

The inquest at Birmingham coroner’s court heard the boys were playing on the lake at about 2.30pm when Finlay fell through the ice. The other boys went to his aid, but all four quickly became submerged underwater.

The first police officers to arrive used their fists and batons to break the ice and form a human chain to try to reach the boys, with one officer entering the water up to his chin.

However, the freezing conditions and depth of the lake meant they were unable to reach the area, about 12 metres from the bank, where the boys had fallen in.

DI James Edmunds, of West Midlands police, said: “Officers should not have entered the water because of the risks, but in fact they did.”

Jason Wilds, of the West Midlands ambulance service, told the inquest: “One officer was up to his neck in water and if he had not got out of the water when he did he would have become a casualty himself.”

The boys were rescued about 15 minutes later when West Midlands fire service used specialist equipment to retrieve them, entering the lake 90 seconds after arriving.

Sam, Jack and Thomas were recovered first, after about 22 minutes underwater, and Finlay was found 10 minutes later, having been submerged for about 32 minutes.

All four received CPR on the lakeside and en route to hospital, where they underwent intensive warming treatment and continuous resuscitation attempts.

Jack and Thomas were pronounced dead later that day, while Finlay and Sam were placed on life support and pronounced dead in the following days.

While Finlay, Sam and Thomas were at the lake, Finlay and Sam had gone on to the ice while Tom talked to a friend on the lakeside.

Jack, who did not know the other boys, was playing on the ice with a separate group.

In a statement read out in court, Jack’s family said: “He did everything he could to make everyone around him smile. He was such a loving, caring boy, always wanting to help. He loved being outside, climbing trees, rolling down the hills, just being free to play.”

Tom was described as “a kind boy who always had a smile on his face”, while Finlay “adored the outdoors regardless of the weather” and “was popular at school, probably due to Pokémon cards which he loved swapping and giving away to kids who didn’t have any”.

Sam was “the most independent six-year-old you would have ever met”, his family said, and was obsessed with fire engines.

“He was our very own Fireman Sam. Making friends was second nature to him. His laugh was infectious, you couldn’t help but laugh when Sam started,” they said.

In a statement after the inquest, Richard Harris, the local policing superintendent for Solihull, said: “Officers tried so desperately to rescue the boys, with many wading into subzero waters up to their necks to form a human chain.

“They had no specialist equipment but bravely smashed their way through the ice with their batons and fists in a bid to find the boys. I’m incredibly proud of those officers who showed such bravery and put their own lives to one side to try and save the lives of Jack, Tom, Fin and Sam.”

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