Died as heroes: Four boys drowned in frozen lake after one fell in feeding ducks and the others tried to save him

7 July 2023, 12:23 | Updated: 7 July 2023, 14:47

Thomas Stewart, Jack Johnson, and brothers Finlay and Samuel Butler
Thomas Stewart, Jack Johnson, and brothers Finlay and Samuel Butler. Picture: West Midlands Police/Facebook

By Emma Soteriou

Four boys who fell in a frozen lake in Solihull drowned in a "terrible accident", a coroner has concluded.

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An inquest in Birmingham confirmed that Samuel Butler, 6, Finlay Butler, 8, Jack Johnson, 10, and Thomas Stewart, 11, died as a result of drowning at Babbs Mill park in Solihull.

The boys were understood to have been playing on the ice when they fell in. Each of them suffered a cardiac arrest by the time rescuers had pulled them out.

Bystanders and police jumped in to help, with one officer treated for mild-hypothermia after trying to punch through the ice in an attempt to save the children.

Temperatures were thought to have plunged to 1C in the area at the time of the incident, falling to -3C overnight.

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Police officer treated for hypothermia after Solihull rescue effort

Detective Inspector James Edmonds from West Midlands Police described how officers first arrived on the scene at 2.43pm after receiving multiple 999 calls, the first coming in at 2.34pm.

Despite advice not to enter the water because of the effect the cold would have on them, officers decided to form a human chain from the edge of the bank to try and reach the area where they believed the boys had fallen in, using their fists and batons to break through the ice.

"The boys were not visible as they were under the water. Officers made the decision to enter the lake," DI Edmonds said.

"They formed a human chain and tried to reach the location they thought the boys had gone under. The medical advice would have been not to go in, but our main duty is to save life and limb."

The boys had been at the lake in two separate groups, with Jack and other children initially going to skim stones before heading out onto the ice, and Fin, Sam and Tom intending to feed bread to the ducks.

The court heard Fin fell in first, with Tom and Jack going to help but falling in themselves. While no-one witnessed Sam fall in the water, DI Edmonds said "the assumption is that he had rushed towards the danger to help".

West Midlands Fire Service arrived on the scene at 2.50pm and specially-trained officers entered the water to find the boys, with Jack, Tom and Sam found under the water at 2.56pm and Fin found at 3.05pm.

He explained how the officers tried their best to reach the boys, with one of the officers up to their chin in freezing cold water, but the water was too deep to get to them.

He said: "The air temperature that day was five degrees, so the water would have been much colder than that. Despite their best efforts, they were simply unable to reach the area.

"The physical impact on the officers was quite significant in terms of their body temperature."

Birmingham City FC manager John Eustace lays wreath in memory of Solihull children after tragedy

Senior coroner Louise Hunt ruled their deaths were an "awful, tragic accident" and said West Midlands Police, West Midlands Ambulance Service and West Midlands Fire, as well as the NHS, all did their best in the situation.

She said: "There really is only one conclusion, that this was an awful, tragic accident. The emergency services undertook considerable efforts to try and save them. Everyone involved did all they could to help the boys and they should be commended for their actions."

Addressing members of Jack's family, who had attended the inquest, Mrs Hunt added: "I offer my condolences to all of you here today, other members of your family and the families that are not here today.

"The death of the boys is a devastating tragedy and it is difficult for us to comprehend how you must feel. I hope today has been able to answer some questions, but it cannot take away your pain, I realise that."

Tributes were read out to each of the boys at the beginning of the inquest.

Jack was described as an "amazing soul who did everything he could to make people smile". Tom "always had a smile on his face", Fin was "full of character and adored the outdoors", and Sam had an "infectious laugh".

Speaking after the inquest, Mr Shapland said he wished the "outcome could have been different" and with the summer holidays approaching, urged parents to warn their children of the dangers of entering open water.

He said: "Even in the summer, as tempting as it may be, open water can kill. Know the dangers. Tell your children."

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