Boy drowns in canal while ‘tombstoning’ in South Yorkshire

Body of missing 11-year-old recovered in Rotherham, while a mother of three drowns in Great Ouse river in Bedford

The canal in Rotherham, close to where the body of the 11-year-old boy was pulled from the water. Photograph: Dave Higgens/PA

The canal in Rotherham, close to where the body of the 11-year-old boy was pulled from the water. Photograph: Dave Higgens/PA

An 11-year-old boy whose body was pulled from a canal may have been tombstoning with a group of friends, firefighters have said.

The schoolboy – named locally as Subhaan Ali – is thought to have leapt 18ft (5.5 metres) from a bridge into the canal in Rotherham, South Yorkshire.

In a separate incident, a woman drowned while playing in a river in Bedford with her children on Thursday night.

The incidents sparked warnings from police and firefighters about the dangers of entering open water, amid heightened concern over the unusually hot temperatures and the start of the school holidays.

Police were called after the schoolboy disappeared into the canal at about 7pm on Thursday. A search and rescue operation recovered the boy’s body at 11pm.

Gary Willoughby, a watch manager at South Yorkshire fire and rescue service, told reporters at the scene that the boy had jumped 18ft from a bridge into the South Yorkshire navigational canal. However, police later said they had not yet determined how the youngster died.

Willoughby said: “This 11-year-old boy was actually taking part in a pastime that boys of his age call tombstoning. Unfortunately, it’s aptly named. It’s jumping from unknown heights into unknown depths of water.

“They tend to jump straight into the water. They don’t assess the water temperature, they don’t see if there are any dangers hidden under the water – shopping trolleys, cars, anything like that, any reeds they might get tangled in. They don’t even assess how deep the water is before they jump.”

Gary Willoughby of South Yorkshire fire and rescue service: ‘They don’t even assess how deep the water is before they jump.’ Photograph: Dave Higgens/PA

Gary Willoughby of South Yorkshire fire and rescue service: ‘They don’t even assess how deep the water is before they jump.’ Photograph: Dave Higgens/PA

Stewart Nicholson, South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue group manager, and Helen Lewis, acting ch insp of South Yorkshire police, stressed they had still not established how and why the boy entered the water.

Asked specifically about tombstoning, both officers said they were looking at a number of lines of inquiry.

Two hours before the boy disappeared police in Rotherham had urged people not to go swimming in open water.

In a post on Facebook, the Rotherham North local policing team said it had dealt with numerous reports of such incidents in the first few days of the school holidays. Emergency services were concerned that the start of holidays, combined with the unusually hot temperatures, could prompt young people to engage in the activity.

In Bedford, a body was found by police searching for a mother of three, thought to be in her 30s, who was last seen more than 14 hours previously when she was diving into a shallow part of the Great Ouse river.

Police said the woman was having a picnic with her children, aged between three and 10, when she entered the water to try to help a person in distress.

Bedfordshire police ch insp Nick Lyall said: “At some point she’s gone into the river to help somebody that’s in distress and we know now the tragic results of that.

Flowers left by the Great Ouse in Bedford, close to where a mother of three drowned after getting into difficulties after trying to help a person in distress. Photograph: Scott D'Arcy/PA

Flowers left by the Great Ouse in Bedford, close to where a mother of three drowned after getting into difficulties after trying to help a person in distress. Photograph: Scott D’Arcy/PA

“I believe the children were playing by the side of the river, but at the moment we are still trying to piece the rest of the circumstances together. The main witnesses are her young children.”

Joe Vacchio, who lives nearby, said there were screams of “I can’t swim” before police and a helicopter arrived. He said the woman lives around the corner from the river and had been diving into the water off small islands with her three children.

In a statement about the 11-year-old boy in Rotherham, a South Yorkshire fire and rescue service spokesman said: “We are all devastated by this tragic incident and our thoughts are with the family and friends of the boy who died.”

The service said there had been 49 incidents involving rescuing people from open water since 2012. People died in three of those incidents.

South Yorkshire police said: “Police received a report at around 7pm that a boy had been seen entering the canal, off Stone Row Way, but had disappeared soon after.

“Specialist resources attended the scene, including South Yorkshire fire andrescue and the ambulance service. The body of the 11-year-old was found in the water at around 11pm. His family has been informed and they are being supported by officers. The circumstances are under investigation.”

On Tuesday a 16-year-old boy drowned while playing with friends in a river in Greater Manchester on the hottest day of the year. Jack Pullen was in the river Etherow when he got into difficulty.

Officers said that while the river appeared shallow and calm there might have been strong undercurrents and submerged hazards. Detectives are investigating reports that the boy became trapped between a bridge and a log.