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The Independent UK
The Independent UK
Josh Payne

Teachers tell French court of panic after girl, 12, went missing under pontoon

PA Media

British teachers have told a French court of their “panic” when they realised that a 12-year-old girl, who died after becoming trapped under a capsized pontoon, was missing.

Jessica Lawson was one of 24 children from Wolfreton School near Hull who had been swimming in a lake near the city of Limoges on a “very hot day” in July 2015 when the plastic platform overturned.

The teacher who was in charge of the trip, Steven Layne, told the court at the Palais de Justice in the French town of Tulle he thought the pontoon was a safety feature.

Mr Layne was quizzed on Tuesday about Jessica’s death and said there was not “any sort of distress” from students or the lifeguard during the incident.

The 46-year-old said he did not immediately tell children to get out of the water because his “first action… was to look towards the lifeguard to gauge his reaction”.

Another teacher on the trip, Chantelle Lewis, told the court she “started to panic” during the incident and “asked ‘where’s Jess’?”

Their colleague Daisy Stathers said she also became “increasingly panicked” after realising Jessica was missing, adding: “But there were 23 other students we were trying to get out (of the water) so I was trying to stay calm.”

Mr Layne, Ms Lewis and Ms Stathers, lifeguard Leo Lemaire and the local authority in Liginiac are all accused of the French equivalent of manslaughter by gross negligence.

Jessica’s parents, Tony and Brenda, watched from the public gallery and were assisted by an interpreter.

Beginning proceedings, the head of jurisdiction in Tulle, Marie-Sophie Waguette, said Jessica was found underneath the pontoon after it overturned.

Mr Layne was asked, with the assistance of an interpreter, what the guidelines were for accompanying children on swimming trips in the UK, before being questioned on whether he knew the guidelines for France.

He told the court he did not know and that he had not asked.

Mr Layne said: “We checked with the lifeguard and we concluded the conditions were OK.

“When I spoke to the students I did say they could use the pontoon but I told them in using it they weren’t to do any diving, not to be silly, to respect other people around it and to not scream and shout.

“I did tell them not to go diving and not to do any bombing in a tuck position.”

He continued: “I didn’t think it was dangerous.

“When the platform capsized I checked first of all whether there was any sort of distress from the students.

“I checked over my shoulder to see the lifeguard, to see his reaction as he was looking in the direction of the platform – but there was no distress from him.

“Just as the pontoon went over a couple (of children) did try to get to get it right again and I told them to leave it alone and get out of the water.

“As the kids were coming out the water we did quickly check to see who was missing and realised that Jessica Lawson was missing.”

Mr Layne was then quizzed by a prosecutor who asked why he had not reacted to the pontoon capsizing.

The witness said: “I did react by looking at the lifeguard to gauge their reaction to see what they thought of the situation.

“I could see that platform was tilted but it was not unstable.”

Speaking about whether the platform was identified as a risk before the children swam near it, Mr Layne continued: “When we did the risk assessment I actually saw the pontoon and I saw it as a safety feature.

“Should they swim, they could use it as something to hang on to.”

Giving evidence later on Tuesday, Ms Lewis was asked if she was “refusing to accept your responsibility”, to which she replied “no”.

The 34-year-old, who was a PE teacher at the time, became emotional before saying: “I started to panic and asked ‘where’s Jess’?”

Ms Lewis said she had spoken to the schoolgirl’s parents before travelling to France because she was one of the younger children on the trip.

She told the court she “wouldn’t say there was a risk” because the children knew how to swim.

Asked why she had not ordered the children to get out of the water when the pontoon capsized, she said: “It was quick… these were split seconds.”

Languages teacher Ms Stathers, who had also accompanied the children on the trip, said the students “behaved perfectly the whole time they were there”.

She told the court: “They were a really nice group of children.

“They responded to everything we asked of them and they were having a great time.

“They behaved perfectly the whole time we were there.”

Asked if she believed it was the children’s behaviour that caused the pontoon to capsize, the witness said: “The platform was not fit.

“At no point were the children playing dangerously.”

Ms Stathers, who also became emotional on the witness stand, said: “I didn’t realise it was Jessica who was missing – Ms Lewis pointed it out to the lifeguard.

“Then I felt increasingly panicked but there were 23 other students we were trying to get out (of the water) so I was trying to stay calm.”

The case continues, and is expected to last two days.

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