Bournemouth beach tragedy: Teens drowned in suspected riptide, inquests hear


A witness who saw the Bournemouth beach tragedy has revealed how a riptide formed just seconds before a 12-year-old girl and 17-year-old boy drowned. 

Sunnah Khan, 12, and Joe Abbess, 17, were swimming in the sea on May 31 next to Bournemouth Pier when they and eight others got into difficulty in the water.  

After a desperate scramble, they were recovered from the sea and lifeguards and paramedics tried valiantly to resuscitate them on the sand.

However, despite being air lifted to hospital, both were declared dead a short time later. 

In a hearing to open the inquest proceedings at Bournemouth Town Hall today, Dorset coroner’s officer Nicola Muller said the two children drowned after a ‘sudden riptide’ in the area. 

Now, beachgoer Trevor Pinto has revealed how he saw the riptide form just seconds before Sunnah and Joe went under. 

He described how he was walking towards Bournemouth Pier with his son when they heard the lifeguards on the beach make an announcement about a riptide.

Sunnah Khan, 12, from High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, died after being pulled under the water near Bournemouth pier

Sunnah Khan, 12, from High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, died after being pulled under the water near Bournemouth pier 

The teenage boy who died while swimming off Bournemouth Beach was named on Sunday as Joe Abbess

The teenage boy who died while swimming off Bournemouth Beach was named on Sunday as Joe Abbess

Mr Pinto looked out to sea and spotted the swirling current about 200 metres away and headed towards the pier at just after 4pm on May 31.

They walked to the end of the pier and saw lifeguards and jet skis recover the bodies of Sunnah and Joe from the water.

He said: ‘We were walking on the pier just after 4pm and heard an announcement from the lifeguards about a riptide.

‘We could see the riptide about 200 metres away. It was a different colour than the rest of the sea. It was on the east side of the pier and was coming towards the shore.

‘After that we walked to the end of the pier to the Key West restaurant. I took a photograph of my son there at 4.10pm.

‘We noticed a lifeguard on a jet ski looking for people under the pier and that is when we realised something was wrong. They pulled the first person from the water and started giving them CPR on the beach.

‘This was about 60 metres away from where we were but there were more lifeguards looking underneath pier.

‘Some other people started shouting that they saw a body. We saw that person was wearing black T-shirt or something. That was about 20 or 30 metres away from the pier. They were also given CPR.

‘People were taking videos and filming and after that they started pushing people away.

‘The pier has two tiers to it and the only person I saw on the pier was a guy fishing. There were no jet skis.’

Asked about the presence of the Dorset Belle pleasure craft, Mr Pinto said he recalled seeing it as he walked onto the pier at about 4pm but it had left by the time he reached the end of the pier at 4.10pm.

An inquest heard today that Sunnah and Joe died from drowning following the riptide.

Sunnah's mother Stephanie Williams, 32 (pictured with her daughter) says she has received little clarity over her death

Sunnah’s mother Stephanie Williams, 32 (pictured with her daughter) says she has received little clarity over her death

An air ambulance takes off from Bournemouth beach after two children died on Wednesday, May 31

An air ambulance takes off from Bournemouth beach after two children died on Wednesday, May 31

The finding raising questions about Dorset Police’s initial statement which said Sunnah and Joe suffered ‘critical injuries’. 

Police also arrested a man who had been ‘on the water’ at the time for manslaughter and impounded a pleasure cruise boat – leading to speculation about what could have lead to the deaths. 

Earlier, Sunnah’s mother Stephanie Williams, 32, also said she was frustrated at not been given a full explanation of the circumstances of Sunnah’s death. 

She said: ‘It’s just really difficult to accept. Somebody has potentially caused Sunnah to be taken away from us.

‘The police have only told us what they said in a statement. The cause of death was drowning, there were no other injuries.

‘We don’t actually know how it came about. I don’t understand how somebody can be released on bail for double manslaughter. How does that work?’

Describing the incident, Ms Muller said: ‘The brief circumstances are that emergency services were contacted by members of the public following swimmers had come into difficulty in the water, following suggestion they had been caught in a riptide.’ 

Rachael Griffin, senior coroner for Dorset, added: ‘I understand there is an ongoing police investigation, despite that, I have already submitted the appropriate paperwork and released both Joe’s and Sunnah’s bodies for the purposes of their funerals.

‘In relation to that ongoing police investigation, I am unable to make any progress in my inquiries.

There is still a death of 12-year-old Sunnah Khan, from High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire

Mystery still surrounds the death of 12-year-old Sunnah Khan, from High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire

Police have impounded a 78ft pleasure boat, the Dorset Belle (pictured), following the tragedy, but have said they are keeping an open mind about what happened

Police have impounded a 78ft pleasure boat, the Dorset Belle (pictured), following the tragedy, but have said they are keeping an open mind about what happened

‘It’s very important people do not speculate on the circumstances surrounding Joe and Sunnah’s deaths and allow the police investigation to proceed, which will allow my investigation to proceed.

‘I would like to take this opportunity to offer my sincere condolences to Joe and Sunnah’s families, my thoughts are very much with them at this difficult time following this tragedy.

‘My thoughts are also with those who attended or witnessed the traumatic events.’

She added: ‘I wish to take this opportunity to remind all those who enter the sea or open water to be aware of the powers of the water and the risks of swimming in open water.

‘It’s important they are aware of how to respond when problems arise and urge people to follow guidance from public agencies such as the RNLI.’

Ms Griffin adjourned the hearing until a pre-inquest review to be held on September 18.

Neither of the families of the two deceased were present at the short hearing.

Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood has expressed concern about a lack of clarity from local police officers about the incident, which he said had led to ‘wild speculation on social media’.

‘We do need to understand, learn lessons from this, provide clarity early on, just so people can have an assurance of mind as to what roughly happened,’ he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

The Bournemouth East MP said: ‘Certainly anybody would not want to impede or prejudice the investigation.

‘But if the absence of any comprehensive statement becomes standard, I can see who, speaking on a wider picture and security level, those who wish us harm could leverage the void by misleading messaging.’

But David Sidwick, the Conservative police and crime commissioner for Dorset, defended the police’s handling of the ‘complex’ case.

Dorset Police have said that the beach was extremely busy but that neither of the deceased young people or anyone else pulled from the sea at the time of the incident was involved in any collision or contact with any vessel in the water.

A man in his 40s, who was ‘on the water’ at the time, was arrested on suspicion of manslaughter, and was released under investigation on Thursday.

The Dorset Belle sightseeing boat was impounded by Dorset Police after the incident.

Ms Muller, the coroner’s assistant, confirmed reports of a sudden riptide in the sea at the time of the tragedy.

She said in relation to Joe: ‘Emergency services were contacted by members of the public following reports that swimmers had come into difficulty in the water following the suggestion they had been caught in a riptide.

‘He was transferred to the Royal Bournemouth Hospital and despite ongoing treatment he was confirmed dead at the hospital.

‘Joe was formally identified by DC Hannah Webster via a photo from family.

‘A post mortem was conducted on the 2nd June by Dr (Basil) Purdue. He confirmed a provisional cause of death as 1a drowning. Samples were retained for further examination.’

Ms Muller said that the body of Sunnah, from High Wycombe, Bucks, was identified by her father.

A second air ambulance takes off from the beach after the half-term tragedy on June 1

A second air ambulance takes off from the beach after the half-term tragedy on June 1

One man was pulled from the water and had to be given CPR on the beach by lifeguards before being taken away by air ambulance

One man was pulled from the water and had to be given CPR on the beach by lifeguards before being taken away by air ambulance 

She said: ‘She was a school child at the time of her death. The brief circumstances surrounding her death are that emergency services were contacted by members of the public following reports that swimmers had come into difficulty in the water following suggestions they had been caught in a riptide.

‘She was treated by paramedics at the scene and transferred to Poole General Hospital. She was confirmed deceased at the hospital.

‘She was identified by her father Mr Khan. A post mortem was carried out by Dr Purdue who gave a provisional cause of death as 1a drowning.’

The devastated family of Joe previously described him as a ‘wonderful son and brother’ and said they were ‘incredibly proud of the fabulous young man he was’.

They described the 17-year-old trainee chef as ‘kind, generous, loving, caring, hardworking and funny’.

Sunnah’s mum, Ms Williams, made a tribute describing her daughter as ‘so well loved and well liked’.

The 32-year-old said: ‘No parent should ever have to go through what her dad and I are going through.’

Dorset Police are investigating the weather, wind conditions and state of the water at the time of the tragedy.

They said that the pleasure boat that was in the area at the time was just one of several lines of inquiry they were exploring.

Detective Chief Superintendent Neil Corrigan said: ‘We continue to keep an open mind around the circumstances that have led to the tragic death of two young people in the water off the beach.

‘Our thoughts remain with the families of those young people.

‘As with any investigation of this nature, we have to look at all factors connected to the state of the water.

‘One of those lines of enquiry has involved the pleasure boat, which was in the area at the time of the incident.

‘These enquiries also include examining wind, other weather and general coastal conditions at the time.

‘I would ask that the police investigation is allowed to continue without further unhelpful speculation around circumstances of the incident, and that there is respect for the families of those who have died so tragically.



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