Senior Coroner for Northern Ireland John Leckey has praised the work of Derry charity Foyle Search and Rescue at an inquest into the death of a man who drowned in the River Foyle in October of last year.
Mr Leckey described the work of the charity as “sterling” and said he did not know of a comparable organisation in Belfast. Expressing his surprise at the number of people who have been helped by the organisation Mr Leckey said he was sure that many families in Derry were grateful to Foyle Search and Rescue for their intervention.
He was speaking as he examined the facts surrounding the death of 49-years-old Michael John Paul Finnegan of Damien House, who died after entering the Foyle on October 12.
The court heard a post mortem examination revealed that Mr Finnegan had three times the legal drink driving limit of alcohol in his blood at the time of his death. His death was consistent with drowning, although injuries were found consistent with him entering the water and the rigorous attempts at resusitation.
Mr Finnegan had a history of heavy alcohol use with associated depression and anxiety. His GP Dr Charlene Monaghan told the inquest she had seen him just four days prior to his death when she had expressed concern about the stress he was under after he was evicted from his home.
However Dr. Monaghan said Mr Finnegan had been candid about how he was feeling and was not, at that time, experiencing suicidal thoughts or feelings. He had been given temporary accommodation and Dr Monaghan discussed his drinking with him and prescribed some low dose tranquilisers to help with his anxiety.
Four days later, on October 12, Mr Finnegan was seen, on his own and naked from the waist up, enter the water shortly after 3pm. David Russell, who lived in flats overlooking the Foyle in the Waterside told the inquest he was standing on his balcony when he saw Mr Finnegan enter the water and alerted police, who in turn alerted Foyle Search and Rescue.
The court heard from Paddy Wilson of Foyle Search and Rescue who described how he and a colleague took the rescue boat out on the Foyle and located the body of Mr Finnegan, floating face down, a short distance from the Craigavon Bridge.
Mr Finnegan was taken on board the rescue boat where CPR was instigated before being taken to Foyle Search and Rescue Pontoon at Prehen where further attempts were made to resuscitate him. Mr Finnegan was then taken to Altnagelvin Hospital were rigorous attempts were made to save his life - however he was pronounced dead some six hours later.
When asked how busy Foyle Search and Rescue were, Mr Wilson said that in the 18 years since their inception they had recovered 90 bodies from the Foyle. He said they had taken 245 people out of the river alive and had prevented more than 2000 people from entering the water.
Mr Wilson revealed the rescue boat had been called out 37 times this year so far - adding that while there were a few incidents of people swimming, or getting into trouble on boats the majority of call outs were to people who had intentionally entered the water - perhaps through drink or drugs.
“A lot of people are suicidal and would be candid about that when we talk to them, Some have prior history - they have tried this before, or been rescued before,” Mr Wilson revealed.
Evidence was also heard from Constable David Houston of the PSNI who attended the riverbank on the day in question. When questioned by Mr Leckey, Const Houston said such call outs were not uncommon and described the number of incidents around the Foyle as “scarily high”.
“Without Foyle Search and Rescue we would have nothing to go on,” he said. “We are completely indebted to this organisation.”
Making his ruling Mr Leckey said there was insufficient evidence to conclude beyond reasonable doubt that Mr Finnegan intended to take his own life - but commented that the amount of alcohol he had consumed may well have coloured his perspective. He recorded that the death was accidental before adding: “It would be wrong if I did not commend the voluntary efforts of the Foyle Search and Rescue who do sterling work.
“I am very surprised to hear how heavily their services are relied upon and I wonder if others in this city are aware of the heavy workload they have to contend with.”