A teenager desperately tried to save his friend from drowning in rough waters after they had jumped from a cliff top into the ocean off the south coast of Grand Cayman, a coroner’s jury heard on Wednesday.
Nicholas Bush battled in the surf for 15 minutes in an effort to rescue his friend, Justin Henry, after they had both made a 35-foot jump from cliffs at Pedro St. James in Bodden Town. In a statement read at the inquest, Nicholas described how he had tried to drag his friend to safety only to be beaten back by strong current and powerful waves.
Justin, 16, drowned in the incident on Boxing Day in 2011. His body was recovered by police scuba divers after a search operation the following day.
It was the first time Justin, who according to family statements was a competent swimmer, an athlete and a prefect at his school, had attempted to jump from that spot – a popular site for cliff divers.
An autopsy gave the cause of death as drowning and listed unfavourable sea conditions and “errors of judgement” as contributory factors.
Several witnesses testified that Justin, a student at John Gray High School, was not pushed or pressured into jumping. A jury recorded a verdict of “death by misadventure”.
All the witness statements were read to the jury by Queen’s Coroner Eileen Nervik.
The jury heard that Justin had gone to the cliffs at Pedro St. James with a group of friends on Boxing Day afternoon.
Nicholas said the boys had jumped into the water within seconds of each other.
“I counted down from five to one and then ran and jumped. After jumping I looked up and Justin was in the air. He landed and surfaced and we both laughed and began to swim back to shore.”
Nicholas, who had made a previous jump only minutes earlier, said the pair swam to a nearby flat-rock and tried to clamber over the ledge to escape the surf.
He said he had pulled himself up after several attempts in strong waves and then tried to assist his friend.
“I told him to give me his hand. I tried to pull him up four times. On the fifth time I said I’m not letting go. But a wave came again, my foot slipped and I fell into the water with him.”
Nicholas said he had managed to swim back and climb out of the water again, but he could see Justin was still struggling against the current. He dived back into the water and tried again to pull him back to the flat rock.
At this point he noticed Justin was face down in the water. He said he had tried to turn him on his back and push him to shore but another wave had hit and he lost sight of him.
He said he was tiring himself and it took him 10 attempts to climb back on to the rock, where he stood shouting his friend’s name until the marine police arrived.
Kristina Jacaban who had arrived with Justin and was watching from the cliff top as the drama unfolded said Justin had initially been reluctant to jump.
Kristina, who was present at the inquest on Wednesday, said Nicholas had jumped first and described the “adrenaline rush”. Then both boys had jumped at almost the same time.
She said they were fighting the waves for 10 to 15 minutes and calling to her for help. She alerted two women who were nearby to call 911.
She said she had seen Nicholas attempting to pull Justin back to the rock, but she had looked away and when she looked back Nicholas was alone.
Another teenager described how he had been blamed for Justin’s death as rumours circulated on BlackBerry messenger in the aftermath of the incident.
He said he had been invited to join the group at Pedro St. James but had decided not to go. He said he had only gone to the cliffs several hours later in an effort to find out what happened after hearing of the accident from friends.
He later posted a picture of himself cliff-jumping on his personal BlackBerry Messenger with the song lyric “it’s hard to kill a n*** with love”. The picture was reposted and circulated on the BlackBerry network, he said, leading to rumours of his involvement and threats.
Police constable Dwight Rivers said in a statement that a search for Justin’s body was suspended overnight on 26 December because of worsening weather conditions. The body was recovered by a team of scuba divers the following morning in a crevasse at about 39 feet deep.
An autopsy conducted by pathologist Cheryl Reichert gave the cause of death as drowning.
Her report concluded: “This teenage boy tragically perished after recreational cliff jumping into turbulent seas off the south coast of Grand Cayman near Pedro St. James. There was no evidence of foul play.”
In summing up Ms Nervik said: “This seems to have been a risk or a frolic that went terribly wrong, causing death.”