Lowestoft: Tributes to tragic firefighter Alan Soards who died during water training exercise at Lee Valley

TRIBUTES were last night paid to a dedicated firefighter who died during a training exercise at an Olympic venue.

People in Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth united to pay their respects to Alan Soards, 38, who was taken ill while in the water on a fire service exercise attended by Norfolk and Suffolk firefighters at the Lee Valley White Water Centre in Hertfordshire.

A full-time firefighter on white watch at Lowestoft South fire station for more than 11 years, Mr Soards was also part of the retained fire crew at the north Lowestoft station. Before joining the fire service, he had spent “several years” as a volunteer crew member with the Great Yarmouth and Gorleston lifeboat and had devoted some of his spare time to delivering road safety presentations to teenage students at Lowestoft College and schools in Waveney.

Yesterday, flags were flying at half mast at the Lowestoft South fire station and the Great Yarmouth and Gorleston RNLI lifeboat station, where Mr Soards had served, and many shocked colleagues have been left devastated by the loss of a “close friend”.

Suffolk’s chief fire officer Andy Fry said the brigade was “devastated” by firefighter Soards’ “tragic death” on Tuesday.

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He said: “Alan was at a fire service water rescue training course at Lee Valley White Water Centre when he was taken ill while in the water. Despite valiant attempts, his firefighter colleagues and paramedics were unable to save his life. Of course, our thoughts at this very sad time are with Alan’s family and friends and also with his firefighter colleagues who were with Alan at the time he was taken ill. Everyone has been stunned by these events.”

A former Cliff Park High School pupil in Gorleston, Mr Soards gained a degree in applied physics at Coventry University, before he moved back to Gorleston. There he was a volunteer lifeboat crew member at Great Yarmouth and Gorleston RNLI lifeboat station.

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Neal Duffield, lifeboat operations manager at Great Yarmouth and Gorleston RNLI lifeboat station, said: “It’s always very sad when anyone who has committed their time and support to the RNLI passes away, and our thoughts are with Alan’s family and friends at this sad time.”

Mr Soards, who lived in Oulton, had to give up his role as helmsman on the lifeboat to be closer to his work as a fireman. David Grief, a retired Gorleston lifeboatman, worked with Mr Soards and described himself as the 38-year-old’s “honorary uncle”.

Mr Grief, 71, said: “He was on the lifeboat quite a long time and was a respected crew member, everybody liked him.” He added Mr Soards’ death had left a “big hole” among the community where he was “incredibly well known” and said friends were shocked by the tragedy.

Mr Fry added: “Alan was an experienced, extremely professional and capable firefighter. He loved his job and was well respected by those who worked with him, many of whom also considered Alan to be a close friend.”

The Lee Valley White Water Centre hosted canoe events during the London games. The fire crews were using the smaller of the two courses at the centre on Tuesday. Investigations were continuing into his death yesterday with a post mortem examination due to be held.

A book of condolence will be available for members of the public to sign at the Lowestoft South fire station in Stradbroke Road from 10am to 2pm, Monday to Friday.

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