Inquest into doctor’s tragic diving death

Dr Judy Beard.
Dr Judy Beard.

A LEADING cancer doctor was knocked into the sea by a wave after getting into difficulty during a diving expedition, an inquest heard.

Dr Judy Belcher, who was known professionally as Dr Judy Beard, was diving with friends off the coast of Eastbourne on July 10 this year when tragedy struck.

Dr Belcher, 54, of Denbigh Road, Hooe, had completed a successful dive but struggled to get back on the boat, despite the efforts of her fellow divers.

Dr Belcher, a consultant haematologist and lead cancer clinician at the Conquest Hospital in Hastings and Eastbourne District General Hospital, disappeared when she was hit by a wave.

Her body was discovered by a council street cleaner on a beach close to Hastings Lifeboat Station on August 2.

An inquest into Dr Belcher’s death heard this week that the mother-of-one was an experienced diver and a qualified instructor.

She was among a group who had travelled out to a shipwreck for a routine dive.

The expedition had set off half an hour late because the boat needed more fuel, but finally anchored at the Rio Parana wreck at 11.30am.

Dr Belcher and her diving buddy, Charlie Wallace, were the second pair to descend.

Mr Wallace told coroner Alan Craze that there was nothing unusual about the dive and Dr Belcher had observed appropriate decompression stops.

But during the time the pair were underwater, weather conditions had deteriorated, with waves rising and falling by four or five feet.

Dr Belcher reached the surface and held on to a rope, but it was snatched from her hands by a wave.

Steven Hill, from Ashford, who was due to dive but decided against it at the last minute, said: “The first thing I remember is a cry of ‘throw me a rope’ which was Judy and I did.

“I looked over the boat and saw Judy.

“She grabbed hold of the rope and we pulled her round the side of the boat, round the stern to the opening where the ladder was.

“She got to the ladder in the normal way.

“A bit breathless, but she got to the ladder.”

But Dr Belcher’s swim line, which is used by divers to help them find their way back to anchor, had become caught.

John Short, who acted as navigator for the trip, attempted to un-snag the line.

Another member of the diving party sat on his legs as he struggled to free Dr Belcher as huge waves crashed over him.

Mr Hill said: “A large wave came over the boat, hitting John, and then I heard him shout they had lost her.”

Weighed down by her equipment, which included two tanks of compressed air, Dr Belcher sank.

She had two buoyancy devices, but neither had been inflated.

Mr Short said he believed Dr Belcher had fallen unconscious, otherwise she would have inflated them.

He added: “I saw no sign of a struggle or anything.”

Mr Short said weather conditions were “on the limit”.

Mr Hill added: “The water was perfectly fine to dive when they all went in.

“If you had taken novices with you, you probably would not have gone.

“But they were experience divers with years of experience.”

Dr Mark Howard, pathologist at Royal Sussex County Hospital, carried out a post mortem on Dr Belcher’s body.

He said Dr Belcher had no significant injuries to her head or body, suggesting she had not hit the boat.

Dr Howard said she did not drown, as the lungs were not heavy with water and there was no foam in the airways, but died from salt water immersion, or ‘dry drowning’

This is when water does not get into the lungs, but the shock of sudden immersion causes the airways to close.

Waterboarding can have a similar effect.

Summing up, coroner Alan Craze said: “I regard this as a pure accident.

“There’s no equipment failure or obvious mistake by her or anyone else.”

He added: “I’m quite happy to accept it was much safer when she went in than when she came to the surface.”

He recorded a verdict of death by misadventure.