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Last Updated: Monday, 9 February, 2004, 06:26 GMT
On the edge with cliff rescue

By Laura Smith-Spark
BBC News Online, South East

Coastguards routinely scan the rocks below Beachy Head for bodies
The coastguard scans the rocks 500 feet below with a pair of high-powered binoculars, looking for anything out of the ordinary.

For a member of the Beachy Head cliff rescue team, the chances are high that a dark shadow spotted half-way down the cliffs will turn out to be a body.

A move to a closer vantage point confirms the coastguard's fears - a man's form can be plainly seen on the rocks 200 feet below.

A pager alert goes out and the cliff rescue team based at Beachy Head - a notorious suicide spot - swings into operation to recover what is its fourth body in a month.

Within an hour-and-a-half, one of the team has abseiled down the cliff face, strapped the body to a stretcher in a body bag and hauled it back to the top, where the police and coroner's officer wait.

I feel we are providing a service returning someone's son, daughter, husband, wife back to them so they can give them a decent burial
Stuart McNab, station officer for Eastbourne Coastguard

Stuart McNab, station officer for Eastbourne Coastguard, praised his team for a job well done in biting winds.

The more grisly aspect of their work was highlighted in January, when three corpses were spotted together.

One body, still unidentified, was that of a murder victim trussed up and thrown over the edge in a barrel.

Mr McNab said: "There are parts of the job which are unpleasant, but even with that I feel we are providing a service returning someone's son, daughter, husband, wife back to them so they can give them a decent burial.

"I've had letters from some of the families that we've assisted, and even though they've lost a loved one, I've always been touched that they've taken the time to write."

Local knowledge

One of the hardest tasks is deciding whether to risk his crew's safety carrying out an operation in bad weather conditions or fading light.

Mr McNab said: "We can tell from the position of a casualty where they've gone over and whether they are likely to have survived.

Coastguard recovering body at Beachy Head
A coastguard hauls a body strapped to a stretcher to the cliff top
"It's not an easy decision to make and God forbid we get it wrong - but it's where local knowledge comes in."

Among the most traumatic cases he recalls in his 13 years as a coastguard are a mother and daughter who jumped together and a father who took his two young sons with him.

But the coastguards' work involves more than finding bodies or rescuing people and animals who have strayed over the cliff edge.

Behaving erratically

Alerts at Beachy Head account for only about a fifth of their 100 or so incidents a year, with most time spent advising people how to enjoy the beaches, cliffs and sea safely and monitoring the environment.

The coastguards also co-ordinate the lifeboatmen, police, RAF helicopters and other emergency services in major maritime incidents.

The coastguard team at Beachy Head
The team responded to 84 incidents in a year
Coastguards recovered 17 bodies in that time
Three people were rescued from the cliffs alive
The team helped police talk three potential jumpers away from the edge
Weekends in the summer months are the busier times, Mr McNab said, so coastguards patrol the cliff edge looking out for people behaving erratically.

But sometimes nothing they can say or do will prevent a person taking their life.

"These people are just ill and their illness has pushed them into the decision and I certainly wouldn't blame anyone," said Mr McNab.

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency has invested heavily in equipment and training for the Eastbourne station - one of the busiest in the UK.

The team is made up of 10 men and one woman, six of them trained Coastguard medics.

Word of mouth

They generally have a second job because they are paid only for operations they attend, despite being on call much of the time.

"We are effectively volunteers. We do get paid while we are operating but I don't think anybody would do it for the money," said Mr McNab.

We are the unknown service really because you hear about the coastguard but people don't know what we do
Coastguard Alan Mackay
Coastguard Alan Mackay said: "We are the unknown service really, because you hear about the coastguard but people don't know what we do.

"It's always been one of the injustices."

New recruits are generally found by word of mouth and train on the cliffs where they will work.

Falling rock

They soon become accustomed to taking the risk each sortie over the cliff face entails.

"The equipment is first class, the best that could be made available to us - the only thing we haven't got control over is the environment," said Mr McNab.

"It's not only the weather but in this place primarily the falling rock, with flint in the chalk.

"But we haven't had a serious accident yet and hopefully never will."

In pictures: A cliff rescue
09 Feb 04  |  Photo Gallery
Barrel 'may give cliff body clue'
19 Jan 04  |  Southern Counties
Experts recover three cliff bodies
17 Jan 04  |  Southern Counties
Men 'died in suicide pact'
25 Nov 03  |  Southern Counties

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