‘I said help my brothers, they’re drowning’: Boy who witnessed Swan River tragedy recalls desperate plea for help
A boy who witnessed two of his “brothers” drown in the Swan River after fleeing police has recalled yelling out to police officers who were at the scene to help.
“I told them to get in the water and help my brothers,” Child P – whose name has been suppressed – told a Perth court during a coronial inquest into the teenagers’ deaths on Monday.
“I said help my brothers, they’re drowning,” he said.
Master Drage, 16, and Master Simpson, 17 – whose first names WAtoday has not published at the request of their families – drowned about 3.30pm on September 10, 2018, while attempting to cross a 100-metre stretch of river between Maylands and Rivervale fully clothed, in rough conditions.
Child P, who appeared in court via video link on Monday afternoon, was shown footage of the tragedy that had been filmed by Bradley Reeve from his Rivervale balcony.
The footage showed four figures in the water, including child P who was chest deep. The three others could be seen struggling to cross the river.
Child P said he was not a strong swimmer and had remained near the shore.
The current was strong with windy conditions, making the audio hard to hear, but at one point the court heard a call for “help” that child P said came from Master Drage.
Child P said he feared Master Drage and Master Simpson were drowning.
He told the court he was asking two police officers who were at the river bank to help but they instead were calling for him to get out of the water.
Mr Reeve, who had been watching on and filming, admitted he didn’t realise the seriousness of the incident at the time, or know WA Police policies and procedures for such an event, but recalled seeing two police officers standing on the other side of the river bank watching on.
“It sort of felt like for the seriousness of two boys drowning you’d think there’d be more police there and boats. It sort of seemed like someone had dropped their phone in the water versus two boys drowning,” he said.
”It didn’t appear that they took off their gear to try to get in but I don’t know what they were thinking or what was going on.”
Counsel for the families of Master Drage and Master Simpson, Anthony Crocker, asked Mr Reeve whether he had thought of contacting police at the time.
In response, Mr Reeve said he had but didn’t know the process.
“A little after six a homicide detective called me up after seeing the footage on the news and then he came to my apartment,” he told the court.
“I gave him all I had including stuff no one else had seen.
“I want to apologise for the footage ending up in the news. I regret it.”
Counsel representing WA Police Naomi Eagling said the evidence intended to be given on Tuesday by officers was that they were trying to persuade child P from going further in the water while following policies and procedures.
Ms Eagling said there were policies in place restricting police officers leaving equipment and firearms behind, especially when there’s a risk of them being used by a civilian, as well as policies and procedures around water searches.
Earlier the court heard the tragedy unfolded after an off-duty nurse, Peta Furness, spotted a group of young men running and two jumping a fence as she drove her car down Clarkson Road.
“I was worried for them because they looked frightened, they were running in single file calling out to each other,” she said. “They seemed alarmed, uncertain and distressed.”
Ms Furness said she carried on driving and flagged down a police vehicle to alert them to what she had seen.
Patrolling officers Constable Lindsay Jeffree and Constable Ella Cutler drove in the direction of the sighting before other members of the public also alerted them to a group of boys jumping fences.
They located the teens and pursued them on foot, with varying witness accounts estimating the officers were about 50 to 100 metres behind the group.
The four boys then entered the Swan River.
By coincidence, two tactical response group officers were in the area at the time and noticed the commotion on the riverbank.
The TRG officers, referred to as Operator 2 and Operator 65, entered the water clothed after seeing two of the boys struggling in the strong current.
Rivervale resident Samuel Cooper, who watched the incident unfold from his balcony after hearing the commotion, said he could hear officers shouting, “Hang on, mate” and, “I’m with you, I’m with you”.
“It was a terrible day, it was very windy and choppy conditions,” he said.
“The whole time it was going on I was praying for a boat to appear to help them … anyone that entered that river, unless they were Kieren Perkins, would have been in distress.”
Mr Reeve’s footage showed the TRG officers desperately using their arms and legs to search for one of the boys after his head went under water.
“They came running down and straight away they were taking their shoes off getting ready to jump in and they swam at an angle towards the boy who drowned on the Rivervale side,” he said.
“You could tell there was urgency, they were trying to get there as quick as they could, another five or six seconds and they could have possibly got there.
“You could see them talking to each other, yelling and having a feel around. I think I saw them do a few duck dives but the river’s quite muddy and murky.”
Counsel assisting the coroner Sarah Tyler said one of the officers – exhausted – eventually turned his attention to a boy who had made it to the Rivervale side of the river, but was clinging to a tree, shouting “I love you” to his friend.
“Operator 65 placed [the boy] on the tree out of the water and tried to use his body to shield him from the wind,” she said.
“He tried to get information from the boy about the number of boys in the river and shouted across to [another police officer on the riverbank] that he thought two boys were missing.”
A subsequent marine search recovered Master Simpson and Master Drage’s bodies later that night and the following day.
The other two boys retrieved from the water were taken into custody and police allegedly recovered items from the pair which were reported missing in burglaries earlier that day.
They, along with a fifth boy who ran in a different direction to the four who entered the river, were released without charge in light of the tragic event.
The inquest is expected to run for 10 days in Perth Magistrates Court.
Coroner Phil Urquhart has been tasked with determining the circumstances surrounding the boys’ deaths and whether police actions caused or contributed to the outcome.
In a statement on Monday, Master Simpson’s mother, Shelley Ninyette, said her son had a bubbly personality and a “profound” love for his mates.
“As a mum, I should not have had to bury my son,” she said.
“My son should have buried me but his beautiful life was cut short.”
Master Drage’s mother, Winnie Hayward, described her son as a loving, caring and polite boy who enjoyed music and sports, especially football.
“He especially loved spending time with his elders, who he called his grandfathers,” she said.
The inquest continues.