It is 16 years this summer since Debbie Turnbull’s son Christopher drowned in a river in north Wales. The 15 year-old was a strong swimmer, but on the day he went to Capel Curig to swim with three friends in August 2006 the waters were swollen by heavy rain.
When Christopher fell into a whirlpool below he went into cold water shock which caused a heart attack before he drowned. Detailing events with the heartbreaking detail she sought after the tragedy Debbie has since made it her mission to save other lives.
As summer gets underway and with growing popularity for cold water swimming she is warning people to be aware of the dangers through the charity she set up after losing her only child – River And Sea Sense (RASS). Debbie goes into schools to deliver water safety advice, has just started training police and her charity website has online courses, advice and information.
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Within weeks of Christopher drowning in August 2006 Debbie went to his school Ysgol Eiras to talk to pupils and raise funds for Ogwen Valley Mountain rescue that recovered his body. Since then she has spoken to more than 10,500 children and teenagers across Wales and Britain about water safety.
In the last 16 years, Debbie has raised money for the RNLI, won national awards, spoken in Parliament and lobbied for water safety education in schools. Rass is also involved in the All Wales Drowning Prevention Strategy.
“When I hear about a drowning I go numb. It is very hard because nearly every drowning is avoidable. When I speak to people about water safety I don’t put fear into people, I just give them the facts,” said Debbie.
“I’m not trying to scare people. Having fun in water is a wonderful thing, it’s about being aware.”
Although she can never know how many lives her work has saved Debbie, who now lives in Holywell, Flintshire,is convinced it has because of the messages she receives. And while she will never get over Christopher’s death her campaigning has brought some comfort.
Recalling the day the tragedy happened Debbie said it started as any normal summer day when Christopher went with three friends to Cyfyng Falls on the Afon Llugwy in Capel Curig. It had been hot that summer with hardly any rain, but it had “bucketed down” a few days before creating heavy water falls.
“There was a massive waterfall and they walked upstream. Chris sat on a ledge about 20 to 30ft up. The waterfalls come down from the mountains in three areas and meet at a point where there’s a whirlpool called “the boil”. It is ferocious. Deadly. It was even worse that day,” recalls Debbie.
“Chris’s mates were filming from the bridge above. He looked up and put his thumb up and then just jumped or slipped. I think he was looking around and then when he felt himself slip he jumped.
“He ended up in the water and sucked under. His best friend tried to save him and jumped in to rescue him but then had to rescue himself. Chris was sucked into the whirlpool and was forced back under the waterfall where his foot stuck in the roots of a tree above.
“He was used to being there and was a strong swimmer but there was not usually a waterfall. They usually swam and had a wonderful time. It is a beautiful place but deadly after it’s been raining.”
Although his friends had mobile phones there was no signal to call for help. When one ran to a phone box he found it was vandalised. Rushing to a house to seek help there the occupier thought he was joking and shut the door on him.
The first Debbie knew was when her husband John came home just after 4pm and had heard on the radio news that a boy had drowned at Capel Curig. “I know it’s him,” he said. Moments later the police knocked on their door.
Three hours later divers retrieved Christopher’s body seven hours after he had plunged into the river just after midday. In the terrible first weeks that followed more than 300 people came to the popular teenager’s funeral and Debbie went into his school to talk about the accident and raise awareness and funds for a new water rescue raft for Ogwen Valley Mountain Rescue.
But while the charity she then launched gave focus she admits it was a struggle. 18-months after losing Christopher Debbie tried to commit suicide. With help from Cruse bereavement and her work campaigning, she has pulled through, but said she will never be happy in the way she was before losing her son.
“I am extremely sad and that never goes. I can be happy but in a different way. the main thing is to accept what happened. You don’t move on, you move forward. With loss it is hard to feel real joy again. You don’t get over losing a child in a million years.
“The worst thing is to lose a child. It is the “what ifs” that are so hard. To lose a life and so much potential at a young age.”
Her work campaigning for water safety has seen Debbie win a National Lottery Achievement Award and a Points of Light Award from UK Government. RASS has received recognition from emergency services across the UK and beyond.
The story is all the more poignant because Christopher, who was a keen rugby player and loved the outdoors, was a “miracle baby” after Debbie thought she could not have children. “Chris learned to swim when he was three. He was a good swimmer and as strong as an ox, but just because you can swim doesn’t mean you are safe,” she warned.
“I try not to put fear into people, I try to give them the facts. Cold water shock is what most people drown from, when you hit the water. Chris had a heart attack from cold water shock. The river was 3-5C that day.”
She hopes his death is not in vain and says his legacy is saving lives through her ongoing campaign. RASS has just started giving training to police forces and launched a family water safety course online on the Rass website
Debbie’s Water safety tips
- Never swim alone
- Inland water can be 3C, the temperature of a fridge, even on hot days. That can cause cold water shock where the body shuts down
- Do not use inflatables in the sea
- Be aware of the risk of underwater obstacles
- Sea may look flat but may shelve deeper suddenly
- Be aware of rip currents in the sea and underwater churn in rivers
- Always tell someone where you are going
- In case of emergency take a phone, keep it charged and check signal
- Put an ICE (incase of emergency ) contact number in your phone
For more water safety information and advice visit the RASS website here