Firefighter killed during water rescue exercise at Olympic white water canoeing centre

The white water rapids at Lee Valley where Alan Soards died during a training exercise
The white water rapids at Lee Valley where Alan Soards died during a training exercise

A fire fighter has died during a water rescue exercise at the Olympic canoeing centre.

Firefighter Alan Soards, 38, was taking part in the drill at Lee Valley White Water Centre,  at Waltham Cross, Herts., on Tuesday when he was taken ill in the water.

Three ambulances and two air ambulances attended, but attempts to resuscitate Mr Soards by his colleagues and paramedics failed.

The white water rapids at Lee Valley where Alan Soards died during a training exercise
The white water rapids at Lee Valley where Alan Soards died during a training exercise

Mr Soards was taking part in a training exercised with Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service, who he had served with for 11 years.

The death happened while officers, jointly with a team from Norfolk Fire and Rescue, were practicing flood rescues – in one of the first exercises of its kind since Lee Valley reopened for public use following London 2012.

It is understood there were other firefighters in the water at the time of the death, which happened in the Legacy Course.

The 160m course is fast flowing Grade Three white water, which means it is full of waves, drops and powerful constrictions designed for canoeists to paddle round.

Canoeists are only allowed on the course once they have completed a competency assessment.

Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service said it was waiting for a probe into the death to find out if Firefighter Soards died as a direct result of his illness, or from drowning.

Police yesterday (Weds) confirmed they were treating the death as “unexplained,” while the tragedy had also been reported to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

Andy Fry, Chief Fire Officer for Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service, yesterday (Weds) said the whole force had been “stunned” by the death.

He said: “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.

“This is a devastating loss for Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service. We are a small fire service where people tend to know each other well and Alan had been a firefighter with us for over 11 years.”

It is understood Firefighter Soards, based at Lowestoft South fire station, had no history of medical problems.

He was not married, but leaves behind parents and a sister.

Chief Fire Officer Fry added: “He was highly regarded by his colleagues – he 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.

“I want to pay tribute to the firefighters from both Suffolk and Norfolk who were with Alan yesterday and to our colleagues in the other emergency services who fought so hard to save his life.”

A spokesperson for Lee Valley Regional Park Authority said: “Everyone at Lee Valley White Water Centre is very saddened about the news of firefighter Alan Soards’ death yesterday and our thoughts are with Alan’s family and friends.

“The incident took place during a Fire and Rescue Service training exercise on the Legacy Course – the smaller of the two courses at the centre.

“These training exercises have taken place regularly since the centre opened and are not related to our public canoeing or rafting activities.”

MP Peter Aldous also paid tribute to the firefighter.

He said: “This is tragic news; Alan served with distinction in the fire service for many years and my thoughts are with his family, friends and colleagues at this very sad time.

“It is appropriate to reflect on the invaluable work that those working in the emergency services carry out for the community.”

A spokesman for Hertfordshire Police said: “We were called at 11.38am yesterday to the Lee Valley White Water Centre by the ambulance service to the reports of a concern for the welfare of a man. Officers were in attendance and sadly the man died. The death is being treated as unexplained.”

East of England Ambulance Service spokesman Gary Sanderson said: “We were alerted at 11:32 BST to reports of a concern for welfare of a man at the Lee Valley White Water Centre on Station Road, Waltham Cross.

“We dispatched three ambulance resources and two air ambulance teams to the scene.”

The £31 million Lee Valley White Water Centre was purpose built for the Olympics and officially opened in 2010.

It offered some limited opportunity for rafting and canoeing but was predominantly a training venue in the run up to the games, but is now open to the public.


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