“JUST don’t go in, it’s not worth the risk.”
That is the message from the police officer who has led three tragic river searches in York this year.
Sergeant Steve Birss of the Yorkshire and the Humber Marine Unit helped search York’s rivers for three missing people in as many months.
Last month, the body of 18-year-old Signaller Tyler Pearson was found in the Ouse near Skeldergate Bridge, two weeks after he was last seen going into the river in an apparent attempt to swim across King’s Staith.
His disappearance followed those of Megan Roberts and Ben Clarkson, who died after falling into the Ouse and Foss respectively.
Large crowds are expected in York this week, coinciding with the beginning of the new season at York Races, and Sgt Birss urged people to stay safe at all times.
He said: “I have to say education is key. Get a taxi home, stay with groups of friends and please don’t dare anybody. Rivers seem to attract people to be ill or to go to the toilet in throughout the region.
“Stay away from the water when having a drink – even in the summer water it will feel freezing cold.
“Even the most experienced swimmer will struggle and the cold water will take your breath away.”
Ben Clarkson – a 22-year-old musician and shop worker – disappeared after a night out in the early hours of March 2, and his body was found in the River Foss on March 21. Megan Roberts, a 20-year-old fine art student, disappeared in January following a night out in York with friends. Her body was found in the Ouse almost six weeks later.
Sgt Birss said the temperatures during the most recent searches had been between seven and eight degrees, with visibility of just inches, which is not a problem for a diver in a dry suit with a support team, but is much worse for someone on a night out.
He said: “I imagine it would have been about four or five degrees [when the three victims disappeared] which is extremely cold when you think your core body temperature is about 37.5 degrees.
“It takes your breath away, and you have to take that breath. That’s when you start to take water on board and once you’ve done that, it’s much less likely you’re going to get out.”
Sgt Birss said the message he would try to put across with The Press’ Take Care campaign was a straightforward one.
He said: “Just don’t enter the water, it’s as simple as that. You can’t flower it up, there are no two ways about it, just don’t enter the water.
“It’s the only way you can keep people safe – just don’t go in, it’s not worth the risk.”
Sgt Birss and his team can be called to search most of Yorkshire and the Humber, costing between £5,000 and £10,000 per day.
The Press launched its Take Care campaign in the aftermath of the river tragedies earlier this year. University students and North Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner Julia Mulligan are also working to raise awareness.