Tank pair died through misadventure

A LIFEBOAT crewman clambered through an inspection hatch in a steel flotation tank in a sacrificial attempt to rescue his stepfather from suffocation, an inquest heard.

A LIFEBOAT crewman clambered through an inspection hatch in a steel flotation tank in a sacrificial attempt to rescue his stepfather from suffocation, an inquest heard.

But according to normal procedure, neither man - both of whom died through lack of oxygen - should have gone in at all, the inquest in Lowestoft was told yesterday.

Charles Buckenham, 52, was seen climbing through the 17in by 13in hatch after his stepfather Brian Dove, 55, at about 2pm on March 5, 2003.

The pair had opened the tank to examine it, with a view to moving or scrapping it. But by the time a firefighter was able to clamber down a ladder inside the tank, there was “no sign of life” in either man.

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The inquest heard Associated British Ports had asked for four tanks moored at the School Lane wharf on Lake Lothing, Lowestoft, to be moved because it wanted to develop the quayside.

Mr Dove, a foreman at marine engineering firm Small and Co, and Mr Buckenham used portable cutting equipment to open the hatch and see what the tanks were made of with a view to scrapping them.

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Small and Co and tank owner Nuthall both operated a policy that no-one should go into a confined space until it had been ventilated for 24 hours.

But despite this, explicit instructions from one of the company directors and years of experience, Mr Dove went into the 44-ton steel tank.

Later investigations suggested at the time the tank might have had as little as 7% oxygen in its atmosphere - normal air carries 21% oxygen.

When first Mr Dove, of Butt Lane, Burgh Castle, near Yarmouth, and then Mr Buckenham, of Hardy Close, Lowestoft, went into the 10m-long, wood-clad container, they were unable to breathe properly.

Emergency service crews trying to reach the men struggled to get into the tank because the backpack-style breathing gear would not fit through the gap.

In the end, a firefighter put on a mask and climbed down with his breathing gear lowered above his head on a rope.

Malcolm Clarke, who was first on the scene after the men went in, said he had pulled up in a car at the quayside and seen two men on top of the tank. On his way to the site he noticed one of them had gone from sight.

“I thought he might have fallen off, so I speeded up. By the time I got to the gangplank, the second man was on his way into the tank and seemed to be panicking,” he added.

Matthew Clay, the Health and Safety Executive inspector investigating the deaths, said it was unlikely that Mr Dove could have got into the tank any way other than feet first “because of his build”.

He added: “It is possible that he started to enter deliberately and then slipped off the ladder.”

Before the jury returned verdicts of death by misadventure on both men, Lowestoft coroner George Leguen de Lacroix said it was not possible to know why Mr Dove had gone into the tank.

“Maybe he just wanted to see what the tank was made of or maybe he dropped his glasses from his pocket,” he added.

After the inquest, Richard Pennington, solicitor for the family, said: “This was a family tragedy.

“Mr Buckenham was a lifeboatman. He lay down his heart and soul to save lives. How many of us can say we would do the same?”

Mr Clay said the Health and Safety Executive had not yet ruled out “enforcement action” against the firms involved in the incident.

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