Monday 16 December 2019

Baby drowned in pond within minutes of going missing

Michael McHugh

A BABY girl fell into a garden pond and drowned within five minutes of her family losing sight of her in Co Down, an inquest has heard.

Emily Jo McCaughey Clarke, aged just 20 months, was discovered face down at the bottom of the pool outside a family friend's house in Ballyhalbert.

She was brain dead by the time she was lifted from the water and was pronounced dead later in hospital, doctors said.

Homeowner Leonora Ginn, who found the tiny victim, said: "My first impression was if the child was not dead she was close to it. The water was gushing out of the child's mouth."

The Belfast inquest heard how Ms Ginn had invited the family to her Harbour Road property in the village after a Sunday Methodist church service.

Emily Jo's mother Kirsty Clarke enjoyed gardening and they spent several hours weeding flower beds with the infant running in and out of the house, checking regularly on her. The pond was at the top of the garden in a raised area and was barely visible from where the adults and another child were working in warm sunlight in June last year.

Ms Ginn warned the family, from Steel Dickson Avenue in Portaferry, of the danger posed by the pond when they first arrived.

"We had become a bit distracted and focused on the weeding and just chatting and conversation," she said. They were facing the wrong direction from the pond for part of the time and the last time Ms Ginn saw the child she was in the kitchen.

The only clue that Emily Jo was in the murky pond was her bottle lying near the water's edge.

Emily Jo's grandmother Jo Ellen Mercer was also present and said: "The whole incident from Emily being at the (kitchen) table to being in the pond could not have been a five-minute gap, it all happened so fast."

The family tried to resuscitate her, the emergency services attended and the baby was taken to the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald then on to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast but the prognosis was poor.

Sean McGovern, emergency medicine consultant at the Ulster Hospital, said: "Unfortunately her brain died whilst in the pond and whilst attempts were made to restart the heart they were ultimately futile in terms of returning to brain recovery."

He said it was remarkable that a stable heart rhythm was achieved at all, albeit for a limited time.

"The heart was beating but unfortunately the brain had died and there was lack of awareness from Emily," he added.

Deputy state pathologist Dr Alistair Bentley said the cause of death was cerebral hypoxia (lack of oxygen to the brain) and pneumonia due to drowning.

"The brain can only withstand a very short period of time without oxygen, after that time there is irreversible damage to the brain and shortly after that there is death of the brain," he said. Pneumonia often sets in after brain injury because involuntary reflexes to protect the windpipe from infection are affected, the expert explained.

Coroner Jim Kitson recorded the cause of death as cerebral hypoxia and pneumonia after the baby fell into the pool.

"I do not want anyone to leave court today with the impression that anyone is under any cloud of blame," he said.

"This is a tragic accident. Ponds are notoriously dangerous where young children are concerned, it was located quite some distance from anyone.

"This child disappeared from your view for a matter of seconds or minutes."

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