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When the cliff collapsed: A multi-agency mission

Wednesday 21 June was an exceptionally hot, calm day – the warmest June day in decades. People flocked to the coast, and Seaford Head in East Sussex was no exception. Little did the beach-goers know, a dramatic cliff fall was about to interrupt their pleasant afternoon.

When the cliff collapsed: A multi-agency mission.

Photo: Eddie Mitchell

At 4pm that afternoon, Newhaven Coxswain Paul Legendre was working at the lifeboat station when he heard the Coastguard being tasked to go to a cliff fall. Hundreds of people had called the emergency services.

The Newhaven crew were paged, and then briefed by the Coastguard. ‘They said there was a potential for serious loss of life, but we didn’t know if there were any casualties yet,’ remembers Paul. ‘There could have been people walking at the top of the cliff when it gave way, or at the bottom of the cliff when the fall hit the shoreline’.

As quickly as possible, the crew launched their Severn class lifeboat, David and Elizabeth Acland, and powered to Seaford Head.

Newhaven’s Severn class lifeboat, David and Elizabeth Acland, during a joint training exercise.

Photo: Nicholas Leach

Newhaven’s Severn class lifeboat, David and Elizabeth Acland, during a joint training exercise

The crew weren’t sure what to expect. It was only when they neared the scene and saw a big, white cloud coming off the cliffs that they realised the extent of the collapse. Around 50,000 tonnes of chalk had fallen into the sea.

There were concerns that two people had been caught beneath the fall, so Newhaven launched the Severn’s onboard inflatable Y boat, with crew members Gary Johnson and Mike Avenell onboard. ‘We sent the Y boat in a bit closer to the cliff fall, just to get a visual on whether there was anyone in the area’ says Paul.

'It was still coming down'

Gary and Mike didn’t see anything during their initial search, so they took the Y boat ashore to Splash Point, a safe area by the cliffs. They picked up two firefighters, armed with thermal imaging equipment to look for signs of life within the huge mound of chalk and earth.

‘It was too unsafe to clamber up the cliff fall itself,’ says Paul. ‘It was still coming down.’

The water was milky white, and the crew could hear eerie, cracking sounds from the cliff. As the RNLI, Coastguard and fire service searched from the waterline, a Coastguard rescue helicopter searched from above.

The Coastguard rescue helicopter searching for casualties above Seaford.

Photo: Eddie Mitchell

The Coastguard rescue helicopter searching for casualties above Seaford

'We do the best we can'

The high temperatures that had lured beach-goers to the coast didn’t create the nicest conditions for the crew. ‘We were sweating on occasion, especially the Y boat crew in their rubber suits. But, like we do with any lifeboat job, we just get on with it and do the best we can’ says Paul.

After a comprehensive search with the thermal imaging equipment, the fire service called off the search. Nothing had been found. With an incoming tide, the Y boat took the fire crew back to Splash Point.

Newhaven crew used the Y boat to transport the Coastguard and fire services.

Photo: Kris James Photography

Newhaven crew used the Y boat to transport the Coastguard and fire services

How did it feel after the Coastguard called off the search? ‘It was a massive relief,’ says Paul. ‘It’s quite unbelievable that no-one, on a hot, sunny day like that, happened to be on the edge of the cliff or down below it. Even now, I can’t believe that no-one was injured’.

This had been an unusual call-out for the crew, working as waterborne transport for the other emergency services. ‘Everyone worked well together,’ says Paul. ‘The lifeboat was ideal for that job as, offshore, we can see everything that’s going on. We were used as a radio relay on occasion. And we were tasked to go along Cuckmere to make sure no-one was walking along towards the fall, as they’d have been cut off by the tide. We do get a lot of people cut off by the tide.’

You can watch Newhaven RNLI in action that afternoon in the video below:

An unexpected rescue

As the Y boat left Splash Point, the eagle-eyed lifeboat crew noticed someone in trouble in the water, near a group of kayakers. They’d been trying to help a woman unable to swim against the incoming tide. The Y boat crew brought the woman onboard and delivered her safely to the beach.

‘She was lucky really, as all the services were looking along the beach at the fall,’ says Paul. ‘The crew of our Y boat noticed her frantically waving her arms and took her back to the beach. She got seen by the ambulance service, which was already on scene in case anyone was injured in the cliff fall.’

The Y boat crew helped the struggling swimmer to safety.

Photo: Kris James Photography

The Y boat crew helped the struggling swimmer to safety

After an eventful afternoon, the Severn class lifeboat stood down and the Y boat was recovered. Paul says: ‘The whole thing took about 4 hours, as the police and Coastguard had to identify the parked cars and trace the people that owned the cars to check there were no missing people. There was quite an operation going on behind the scenes.’

Stay safe

Over the next three days, Newhaven RNLI were called out two more times to cliff falls in the area. Cliff edges can be incredibly unstable, and rock falls are unpredictable. Even sunbathing or picnicking beneath a cliff can be dangerous, as you never know when loose shingle or rocks might tumble down.

What’s Coxswain Paul’s advice for staying safe? ‘Be careful. Keep away from clifftop edges, and try to keep away from the cliff base at the bottom too’.

One rule of thumb is to keep at least the height of the cliff away. So, if you’re near a 20m high cliff, keep a distance of at least 20m.

This rescue features in Saving Lives at Sea, a 12-part BBC series on the RNLI’s lifesaving work. Get more stories from the series here.