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6 February, 2004

Tides kill 19

Maybe somewhere like New York it's common to hear a helicopter pass over one's house then hear that same helicopter a minute later on a live national news report, but here in Lancaster it hadn't happened to me before today.

Lancaster is within walking distance of the coast, more precisely the vast sand flats of Morecambe Bay. When the tide is out, it's out as far as the horizon, but returns at terrifying speed. The flats are also an extremely complex environment, with a shifting network of gullies and quicksand.
Furthermore, they are home to some 6 million ($11 million, currently) worth of cockles and a traditional industry harvesting them. In recent years, the area has been opened as a public fishery, and once permits are obtained, anyone can go onto the sands to harvest. This has caused predictable ill-feeling amongst the locals, but putting protectionism to one side, there are genuine safety implications of inexperienced people entering such a treacherous environment.
It's bad enough when harvesters from other areas of the UK visit (as is their right; I'm certainly not saying they shouldn't), thinking they know the conditions because they've previously worked in North Wales or the Bristol Channel; somewhat different situations, and Morecambe Bay can still surprise those fishermen. However, once permits are obtained, there's no way to prevent multiple people sharing them, and to prevent sub-contracting or the employing of totally unskilled labour. There have been numerous cases of illegal immigrants and 'unemployed' benefits-claimants being caught working on the sands. Harvesters can earn 500 per day, but the illegal labourers are unlikely to see much of that.

It's unproductive to say "I told you so", but anyone who has read a local paper within the last couple of months has been repeatedly told about a tragedy waiting to happen. Now it has.

Yesterday afternoon, a group of over 30 went out, and were caught by the tide. The alarm was raised at 21:20. Fourteen people escaped or were rescued, and at the time of writing, eighteen bodies (16 male) have been recovered. Those rescued seem to be Chinese nationals, with little command of English, so it's not really known how many were in their party.

[Update, 22:15: the final death toll seems to be nineteen.]
[Update, 16/2/04: another body has been found, taking the total to 20. One source claims there may be four more as yet undiscovered.]

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