A senior civil servant who drowned off a north coast beauty spot slipped and struck his head on rocks before falling into the sea, an inquest has heard.
Stanley Duncan, 57, chief executive of the Driver and Vehicle Agency (DVA), was most likely unconscious when he plunged into the water near Portstewart harbour in April, Northern Ireland’s Senior Coroner John Leckey ruled.
The married father-of-two from Comber, Co Down, had been on a day trip to visit his mother-in-law when the fatal incident happened on Easter Tuesday.
His widow, Wendy Duncan, said he had left her in the afternoon with the intention of going to the rocks behind the harbour to do some fishing.
“Whenever we were up that direction that’s one of the spots he would have chosen,” she told Mr Leckey.
Mrs Duncan said while her husband of almost 31 years was “not an avid fisherman” he enjoyed it for some “peace and quiet”.
“He was a hard-working, happy man who had a great life,” she stated.
While no-one saw Belfast-born Mr Duncan fall into the water from the rocky outcrop at Harbour Hill, a man who was fishing close by with his brother and daughter heard it happen.
Ross McCullough told the court: “I heard a thud followed immediately by a splash.”
Mr McCullough and his brother Michael climbed down the steep rocks to find a man’s body floating face down in the sea around three metres from a partially submerged ledge.
“I noticed blood around his head in the water,” he said.
After two or three minutes trying, the pair eventually managed to pull Mr Duncan to the edge of the water using a scarf.
However they were unable to haul him completely out of the water and instead held him with his head above the surface, having called to a onlooker on the rocks above to get help.
Mr McCullough said Mr Duncan had shown no signs of life in the time they were with him.
The Portrush lifeboat was at the scene within 14 minutes and crew members managed to pull Mr Duncan aboard before commencing resuscitation efforts.
Christopher Little, station officer with the coastguard, said all attempts to revive Mr Duncan brought no response.
Mr Little explained Mr Duncan’s fishing equipment had been found half way down a steep section of the rocks, with the rods still in their covers.
He suggested the occasional angler may have been making his way to his chosen spot and, halfway down, had set his gear on a flat surface with the intention of reaching back to retrieve it once he had managed to secure a position below.
At some point on his way down he must have fallen, he added.
“He has hit his head on the ledge before he went into water and probably knew nothing about it from then on,” said Mr Little, who said the rocks were not overly slippy on what had been a sunny, clear and calm day in Portstewart.
Mr Leckey said while the area was beautiful it posed many hazards.
“It is a very scenic place with wonderful views across the sea,” he said.
“It’s an area I have been to myself, but having refreshed my memory by looking at the album of police photos, it’s a dangerous place with rocks.”
Noting that Mr Duncan was not wearing a life jacket or buoyancy aid, the coroner asked Mr Little was it usual for onshore fishermen to take such precautions.
“Very few anglers would wear life jackets or buoyancy aids,” the coastguard representative replied.
“For the simple reason that while they are aware of the dangers they always imagine it will not happen to them.”
Mr Leckey asked would it be practical to erect signs urging the use of safety equipment.
Mr Little responded: “It would be impossible to put signage up everywhere people fish, because people fish all along the coast.
“In 33 years with the coastguard there are very few places along the coast I can remember where an incident has not happened. People just have to be very careful when they go near water.”
He said while a buoyancy aid may not have been able to save someone who is unconscious, a life jacket could have turned the body upwards and out of the water.
Pathologist Dr Jack Crane, whose post mortem findings were presented to the inquest hearing in Belfast, identified the cause of death as drowning but also noted a significant injury to the back of Mr Duncan’s head.
“This was consistent with his having fallen on slippy rocks and struck the back of his head before entering the water,” Dr Crane’s report stated.
The expert said the injury was sufficient to cause concussion.
“In such a state he would have rapidly succumbed to immersion in water,” he added.
Recording the cause of death as drowning in salt water, Mr Leckey extended his sympathy to Mrs Duncan for her loss.
The coroner said while the issue of life jackets and buoyancy aids had featured in the inquest, he suggested such equipment may not have made a difference to Mr Duncan.
“There has been much discussion about buoyancy aids and life jackets,” he told Mrs Duncan.
“I honestly don’t think if your husband had been wearing one it would have made a difference - the head injury was very significant.”