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TOP NEWS | Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Mellieha tragedy – negligence ruled out

Karl Schembri

A judge has ruled out negligence on the part of rescuers in the tragic case of Marc Bradshaw that happened seven years ago in a rescue operation that took two hours to retrieve the lifeless body of the 22-year-old man off the cliffs of Mellieha.
Ric Bradshaw filed a case in the Civil Court against the government in May 2001 – a year after the accident – suing for damages and holding the emergency services responsible for the death of his son, Marc, on 8 July of seven years ago.
His son plummeted to his death from the height of around 10 storeys at l-Ahrax tal-Mellieha on 8 July 2000 and the rescuers recovered his body after around two hours of manoeuvres carried out by the police, the Armed Forces of Malta and the Civil Protection Department. Marc had just finished working at a party and decided to go with his friends to l-Ahrax tal-Mellieha watch sunrise at around 4.30am.

Ric Bradshaw filed the case against the Civil Protection Department, the Armed Forces of Malta, the Health Department and medical doctor Victoria Ciantar, claiming that they were negligent during the rescue operation, with the result that his son died when he could have been saved.
But in the sentence delivered earlier this month, Mr Justice Tonio Mallia ruled that the authorities did all they could although the rescue operation could have been carried out better “with the benefit of hindsight”.
“From the way the operation was carried out, it does not result that there was lack of co-ordination between the rescue services,” the judge said.
He added that “it is true there is no arrangement between the Armed Forces and the Civil Protection Department about who should take control of an operation in the case that both are called on site – something that should be clarified – but in this case it results that the Civil Protection official in charge on site gave over the operation to the army as soon as he saw the helicopter approaching.”
In the magisterial inquiry conducted by Abigail Lofaro, the Armed Forces of Malta had confirmed that the helicopter could not take off until daybreak, while Marc was still alive beneath the cliffs, but this version was contradicted in front of judge Mallia.
Andrea Pace, a qualified nurse and friend of Marc, and AFM Rescuer Brian Xuereb, both found Marc still had a pulse upon reaching him, but no medical assistance was offered by the rescuers of the Civil Protection Department.
In his writ of summons Bradshaw claimed that the rescuers’ “lack of ability, carelessness and lack of professionalism” was reflected throughout the way they conducted the rescue operation on his son. He mentioned the “lack of co-ordination between the different rescue services”, the refusal by AFM to fly a helicopter on site with a doctor on board, and the ill-equipped AFM rescuer who was winched without carrying any means of communication.
Bradshaw said he suffered damages while the authorities failed to admit responsibility for their failed rescue operation and asked the court to declare the authorities responsible for the damages.
The judge ruled however that “the procedure to lift the stretcher was proceeding well and no need was felt to send another official down the cliff to help ... in fact, besides the slight hitch that occurred when the youth who was holding the rope slipped, the operation was carried out with the diligence and expedience required.
“This court is not saying that, with the benefit of hindsight, the rescue operation could not have been carried out better, but, considering everything, this court agrees with the conclusion reached by the inquiring magistrate that not much time was lost or that there was any negligence... in this unfortunate accident, the convened parts did all they could and cannot find any reasons to condemn them.”

Friends rebuked
Judge Mallia however rebuked the victim’s friends for not protecting him from danger:
“The court however believes it has to rebuke the victim’s friends who although they realised that Marc Bradshaw was drunk did not try to protect him by keeping him away from danger and they left him reach the edge of the cliffs.”
The judge also added that the victim had high levels of alcohol in his blood as well as traces of Ecstasy taken during the same rave party.
“A person in that state, even more when he is stoned with the loud music one finds in rave parties, should not put himself in danger by walking towards a precipice,” the judge said.
“If the person was irresponsible enough to drink a lot of alcohol and even take drugs, he should have at least been cautious enough to leave a way out. The victim knew he was drinking lots of alcohol and taking drugs; he knew, or should have known, that that kind of mix would affect his thinking, but he took no precaution. This person put himself in a situation of danger; it was like a bomb with a short fuse, and he was still hazardous enough to go on the Mellieha cliffs after the party.
“This court is making these comments because it feels it is unfair that whoever freely puts himself in a dangerous situation should expect the Maltese people to pay for his rescue... whoever through his negligence puts himself in a situation of danger and requires the police, armed forces or civil protection’s help, should be made to pay for the services or his relatives should pay for them... it is not fair that one should get a free service in such cases, while his assets remain intact and the treasury is more depleted of its resources. The country’s resources, limited as they are, should not be freely wasted on one who does not take care of himself.”
The inquiring magistrate had concluded that the causes of Bradshaw’s death were accidental, that there was no evidence that someone could have contributed to the accident, that no time was lost and that there was no negligence from the side of the rescuers.
It says the only three people who said Marc had a pulse were his own friends; Richard Bonello, Simon Debono and Andrea Pace, who went down the cliffs upon alerting the emergency services.
And yet interrogations held for the inquiry confirmed that rescuers from Armed Forces of Malta said Marc was still alive and set hospital staff on the alert. Pace, a qualified nurse, checked and found Marc had a pulse upon reaching him and shouted to the rescuers on the top of the cliff that his friend was still alive. The message that Marc was still alive was sent to all the units involved in the rescue via radio.
Pace had said in an interview after the tragedy that a rescuer who was winched down the cliffs from a helicopter, Gunner Brian Xuereb, had also felt Marc’s pulse and shouted: “he’s got a pulse, let’s save him”.
In his testimony however Gnr Xuereb said that in his opinion, Marc was dead and that he could feel no pulse.
Simon Debono, 24, testified that he could feel a weak pulse upon reaching Marc, although he left Ms Pace to check because she was a professional nurse. He also confirmed that Gnr Xuereb told them: “let’s try and save him”. He said that when the rescuers started hauling Marc up the victim had no neck support, and so he had to be lowered again until a neck support was provided from above.
The operation turned into a jerky tug-of-war when the stretcher got stuck halfway through. Marc was finally winched up for the last few metres by helicopter. It was only then, after 6.15am, that Dr Victoria Ciantar certified him dead.
The inquiry report documents a number of conflicting statements by several witnesses, especially as regards the timing of the rescue operation.
Marc went with his friends to l-Ahrax tal-Mellieha to see sunrise after a party at around 4.30am. As they were waiting for other friends to arrive they suddenly realised that Marc had fallen down the cliffs. Immediately Steve Casaletto, one of his friends, called the emergency number, 199, from his mobile. Casaletto said the rescuers arrived at around 5.30am.
Meanwhile Marc’s friends, Pace, Bonello and Debono climbed down the cliff and reached Marc. In his testimony, Bonello said: “We saw him lying face down. His body was still warm and he still had a pulse. This was proved by the rescuers,” he said.
According to the AFM incident report, the helicopter took off at approximately 5.25am. Upon their arrival the crew realised that “a straightforward attempt to hoist up the casualty by means of the helicopter was impossible, as the casualty was situated under the overhanging cliff edge”.
In this month’s sentence, the judge said the helicopter took half an hour to leave to its destination once the emergency call had reached it.
“In this court’s opinion, this is a very long time... 15 minutes since it received the call, it should have been airborne.”
The pilot winched Gunner Brian Xuereb down close to the victim and then landed the helicopter behind a nearby chapel. The AFM report says: “When Gnr Xuereb assessed the casualty (in the absence of a doctor) ... the patient had an absence of breathing and pulse. However he was still treated as a patient requiring professional medical treatment.”
The AFM said that “at this point, the female bystander (Pace) said that she could feel a pulse. However, when Xuereb tried he could not feel any pulse.”
It adds that “although a doctor was on site, the pilot decided against winching him down due to the hazardous conditions of the rocks below the cliff”.
Prof. Marie Therese Camilleri and Dr Ali Safraz who conducted the autopsy said: “The deceased died a couple of hours later before being transferred to hospital.”
In their autopsy report they conclude that “the cause of death of this young man is multiple injuries due to a fall from a height”.
His blood alcohol level was 206mg per 100ml – a level which usually results in marked loss of co-ordination, poor sensory perception and nausea, the inquiry says. Ecstasy traces were also found in the blood. Its combination with alcohol is likely to have an increased effect on loss of co-ordination and sensory perception, the court experts said.
On the other hand, forensic expert Mario Scerri said that considering the extensive internal injuries and the amount of blood lost due to internal haemorrhage, Marc could have remained alive only for a few minutes after his fall. Dr Scerri, who examined the corpse at 8.15am said the victim must have been dead for around four hours.

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