Should racing go on?

2014-02-12 00:00

THE brother of a swimmer who drowned at the 2011 aQuelle Midmar Mile yesterday lambasted race organisers as the search for swimmer Thabo van Straten, who went missing on Saturday, continued last night.

Race director Wayne Riddin apologised to the bereaved, but dismissed criticism of safety at the event and outlined what he said were the extraordinary measures they put in place to ensure swimmers’ safety.

Van Straten (42) is believed to have gone missing some time after he started the race on Saturday. When he never reached the finish line his fiancée, Shene Jones, raised the alarm.

Now Andrew Cawdry, the foster brother of Nico Mellet, who died during the event three years ago, is also demanding answers.

“We feel strongly that the race organisers and sponsors need to seriously look at their safety regulations and precautions taken prior to, during and after each heat of the race,” said Cawdry.

He called it a “travesty” that for the second time in three years, race organisers continued with the Mile while a contestant remained unaccounted for.

“Had I been swimming, I would want to know that there is a suspected drowning and that the body has not yet been recovered,” he said.

The best time to recover a body, he said, was immediately following the race.

“The fact that the subsequent days’ races continued made the task impossible for the search-and-rescue team to recover Nick’s body as quickly as possible and we had to wait five days for his body to surface of its own accord,” said Cawdry.

He said Mellet’s autopsy had shown he had died from drowning and not from a heart attack as initially reported.

Cawdry commiserated with Jones’s allegation that she received shoddy treatment when she reported her fiancé missing.

“It appears the immediate family was ignored, pushed to one side and not taken seriously when a missing person case was reported, as was the case with us three years ago,” said Cawdry.

He questioned the lifeguards’ performance, saying there were “too many contestants thrashing it out to finish the race”.

He urged Riddin and his team to reflect on whether the Midmar Mile should be known as the “world’s biggest open water swim” or the “world’s safest open water swim”.

An upset Riddin, who was at Midmar Dam yesterday, apologised to Jones and Van Straten’s family for the treatment they received when they reported him missing.

“This is an emotional time for me as well and I’m feeling the hurt too. It’s a death that I have to live with too,” said Riddin.

“I want to say sorry from the bottom of my heart that correct procedure was not followed when the family wanted to report Thabo missing.

“It is an oversight on our part and it is definitely something we will be addressing.

“It was unnecessary that Ms Jones had to be pushed in different directions at a time when she needed to be handled with great sensitivity and for that I will forever be remorseful,” said an emotional Riddin.

At the dam constantly since Friday night, Riddin said the decision to call off the race was not his to make.

“While I understand the sentiments of the family, it’s a tough call to make. What do I say to the thousands of other swimmers who have travelled from all over South Africa and abroad? What about the seeded swimmers who use this race towards their performance records?” he said.

SA Police Service diver and part of the Midmar Mile safety team, Lieutenant Jack Haskins, said in 2011 he had personally discussed the race continuing with Mellet’s family and the family had agreed.

“Swimming the Mile is an adventure sport and if you are participating you must know the danger and risk associated with it.

“It is unfair to blame the organisers if something happens to you,” said Haskins.

Riddin said everyone participating in the Mile was a trained swimmer and safety precautions included 120 lifeguards, 10 engineer boats, 13 SAPS divers, 13 navy divers and boats.

The Events and Competition Management Act, he said, required one lifeguard per 50 swimmers. Midmar race organisers provided four lifeguards for every 50 swimmers, besides the navy and SAPS divers.

He said a search for a missing swimmer was complex and they had to establish first if the swimmer had not simply left the race. In previous years missing swimmers had been located in local bars, hotels and elsewhere.

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