Standing on the river bank, Kirsty Walsh knew instinctively that the search and rescue team was about to find her husband’s body.
The 29-year-old had vanished on a Saturday night in Shrewsbury after going out to a nightclub with a friend. After leaving the venue at 3:45am, Shane had disappeared.
When police officers later examined CCTV footage, it was clear that after leaving, he had stumbled and fallen into the river on his way home.
For Kirsty and her young family, it was a devastating loss. “You don’t sleep. You just go into autopilot. I had to explain to my three year old that dad’s not coming home. That was the worst part of my life when I tried to explain to him. I can still see his face to this day, the look he had on his face. He was really young.”
What happened to Shane is not unique. Statistics show that around 17 men go missing after a night out each year, according to research by academics at the University of Portsmouth.
Between 2010 and 2018, there have been at least 150 fatal cases of people going missing after a night of drinking, with the majority being young men under the age of 35. Of these disappearances, a staggering 85% are later found in water – in rivers, canals, lakes or the sea.
Each time the story of a young man going missing after a night out hits the headlines – such as in February, when the body of 19-year-old student Daniel Williams was found in a lake – Kirsty is transported back to the worst days of her life in September 2017.
Shane had been out and was planning to stay at his mum’s in town so as not to disturb his wife and two children, Corey, who was three at the time, and Adalynn, who was nearly one.
The morning started like any other weekend. After taking the children to Tesco, Kirsty, a teaching assistant, called Shane to ask what time he wanted to be picked up. When she couldn’t get through, Kirsty rang his mum, only to be told that Shane hadn’t stayed there. Straight away Kirsty knew something was wrong.
“I just got that sudden drop of the belly feeling like something wasn’t right … I just had that gut feeling it was something bad because he would always come home. It was just so out of character.”
She leapt into action, calling around his friends and the local hospitals, before calling the police. Family and friends started a search for Shane, but it was short-lived. The following day, the police found CCTV footage showing him falling into the River Severn.
The footage showed he had stumbled into a low wall running along the bank, and the impact had propelled him forwards into the river.
It was then that Kirsty knew her husband would not be found alive.
The West Mercia rescue team was sent to search the river, and Kirsty couldn’t help but go down and watch. It was a Thursday afternoon, and just as she was preparing to leave and go home, the rescue team recovered Shane’s body.
“They obviously said ‘don’t go down there’ but I’m just one of those people who has to go and see for myself, and it just made it more real for me. So I went down.
“I had never heard about the team in my life and it kind of shocked me how many people were there that were strangers. Some had driven for hours and hours to come and help search,” Kirsty said.
The experience has driven her to become a campaigner. After meetings with the police, fire service and local council, new safety measures have been put in place on the stretch where Shane fell in, including a fence with a hedgerow designed to knock people backwards if they trip, as well as an emergency throwline to be used by bystanders if someone falls in.
Kirsty has also become an ambassador for West Mercia search and rescue team’s ‘Home and Dry – No More River Deaths’ campaign. Part of the role involves taking part in night-time patrols to dissuade people from going near the water. During one of her first outings she steered 12 high-risk people away from the river.
Geoff Newiss, who co-authored the University of Portsmouth research, studied each of the 150 cases to analyse why so many young men die in water.
His work shows that 70% of those who went missing on nights out were aged 25 and under, with 45% being under 21 – and more than one third were students. The winter months of December, January, February and March accounted for over half of all cases.
“What you find with men, there is a lot higher risk of fatality. These estimates are based on pretty ropey data, but it’s the best we’ve got. I always say if it’s a man missing on a night out and you haven’t got them back in the first 24-48 hours, then you are looking at a roughly 90% fatality rate. That is absolutely enormous. It’s probably the highest risk of fatality among any missing person category.”
Newiss added: “With women, there is a much higher rate of homicide. There are accidents as well. There was quite a famous case in York a few years ago which was very much the male profile of too much to drink and she went down by the river and stumbled in. But you don’t hear it as often with women.”
Shrewsbury and York are just two of the hotspots, along with Bath, Durham, Bristol and Manchester. Each place has two crucial things in common – a busy night-time economy and a river or canal running near the town centre.
In Manchester, there were so many cases of people falling into the canal that local residents became concerned a serial killer was at large. However the rumours have been repeatedly denied by those in law enforcement who have found no evidence of foul play. Most of the deaths were simply accidents.
Nick Pope, a businessman from Ponteland in Northumberland, confesses he had no idea Manchester even had inner-city canals until the day his son’s body was found in one of them in March last year.
When he was taken to Lock 89 of the Rochdale canal, which is where his son Charlie was found, he could see how dangerous it was. He could see how easy it would be to slip in, especially after drinking alcohol.
Charlie, 19, had recently moved away from home for the first time and was studying economics and philosophy at the University of Manchester. His older brother, Joe, now 23, was already at university and his younger sister Daisy, now 18, was home studying for her A-levels. As a fresher, Charlie was living in halls of residence and was “loving it”, Nick said.
Charlie had called his parents on the Tuesday night and mentioned he was going out the following night. It was during the Beast from the East, a cold weather snap in Spring 2018, so they told him to be careful in the ice and snow.
On Thursday they had a phone call to say his flatmates in Manchester had become worried about his whereabouts.
“We reported him missing straight away. As a parent you kind of know when you have phoned around that something has happened. We hoped for the best but feared for the worst. By the Friday when he hadn’t been in touch, we kind of knew it was something bad,” Nick says.
The police were able to trace Charlie’s mobile phone to the point it was last used, and on Friday afternoon, a body was found in the canal. It was Charlie.
At the inquest into his death, father Nick and his wife Andria heard that the fact Charlie had had “a skinful” played a part in how he got separated from his friends and why didn’t get a bus home. The inquest heard how after leaving the nightclub, he and his flatmate got kicked off a bus for being too drunk. They returned to the nightclub before getting separated.
Charlie then left the venue alone at around 1.20am and CCTV captured him heading in the direction of his student halls in Fallowfield. For three hours, there is no trace of him on security footage, before he was spotted once again walking back in the direction of Manchester city centre and onto the canal towpath near Rain Bar, where it is believed he fell into the water. The coroner concluded that Charlie’s death, like Shane’s, was accidental.
Similarly to Kirsty, Nick felt compelled to take action and started a campaign to make the canals safer. He said: “I just couldn’t believe how dangerous the canals were [when I first saw them]. They have no barriers, there is nothing to stop people falling in and obviously if you have had a few drinks, it would be worse.”
Thanks in part to Nick’s campaigning, the Manchester Water Safety partnership have started doing work in schools to raise awareness of canal safety. In January, the Canal and River Trust announced it was planning to erect a barrier near Lock 89 where Charlie died. A memorial will also be erected.
Nick also threw his support behind the annual campaign for Drowning Prevention Week, which takes place this week. Local Government Association, which represents councils in England and Wales, is calling for the dangers of cold water shock to be taught in swimming lessons. New figures show the number of young people drowning accidentally in the UK rose by almost a quarter last year.
“I’ve gotten involved big time,” Nick said. “I just thought we’ve got to try and stop it happening to other families. It’s catastrophic when something like this happens and if we can prevent one family from going through it then it will be worth it.”
But while both Shane and Charlie were found within days of going missing, some families are left without answers for weeks, months or longer. The research shows 47% of cases were resolved within a week, however, roughly the same – one fifth of cases – took longer than one month to be resolved. In contrast, just 2% of all missing person cases last longer than one week.
Amy Walker, casework manager for Missing People, explains the impact not having answers for long periods can have on families who come to the charity for support. “It’s a very difficult, emotional situation to be in. We refer to it as ‘ambiguous loss’ which is when it can feel like you’re stuck in some parts of the grieving process. In some cases, they don’t know if they should grieve as they don’t know for sure what happened and where their loved one.”
Kirsty says she can’t imagine how she would have coped if Shane hadn’t been found within days. “When I see on the news that someone has gone missing, I’m constantly on edge, hoping and praying it’s going to be a positive outcome. It was horrific just not knowing for four days, let alone months and months. I can’t even imagine that.”
Shane remains missed by his young family. “My children and I are still living with what has happened and it’s something we are going to have to carry with us for the rest of our lives … But this is the card I’ve been dealt with and I need to do as much positive stuff as I can because I have to be here for the children.”
Nick said his family has found some comfort in speaking with other families who have lost loved ones the way they lost Charlie. “There are quite a lot of bereaved parents out there who have lost their kids to drowning. What has happened through campaigning on social media is you can end up being put in touch with them,” he said.
“We always say that we belong to an exclusive club that we would rather not belong to.”
Missing People runs a free, confidential and 24hr helpline, 116 000, which is supported by players of People’s Postcode Lottery. The helpline provides practical and emotional support to missing people and their families, and can also take anonymous sightings and information about missing people. People can also email firstname.lastname@example.org – free, confidential, 24/7.