Holiday tragedy as doting dad and granddad died from 'extremely rare' risk while swimming

A fit and healthy man died after being drowned by his own bodily fluids while on a snorkelling holiday.

Les Finch and his wife Martha had flown from Manchester Airport to Sharm-el-Sheikh in Egypt on February 22 of this year. Les, a retired engineer from Ormskirk, was an experienced snorkeller and the couple had gone on holiday with a friend who had previously lived and worked in Egypt.

For the first three days of the trip the group stayed in Sharm-el-Sheikh before travelling to Dahab which is known for its clear waters and coral-filled coastline. The group, who had also been due to spend several days in Cairo, swam in a diving area known as Three Pools.


On February 27, the trio in a large dive site interconnected by saddles of coral. The day before Les, a dad of three daughters, had cut short a swim after he experienced a bout of coughing. But he put this down to a cold he had recently recovered from.

At one point Martha, a retired district nurse, lifted her head out of the water and was unable to see her husband. Several other divers began to help searching for Les and he was eventually found, face-down as if he was still snorkelling, and not breathing.

Les was pulled out of the water and divers began CPR while waiting for an ambulance. Sadly Les could not be resuscitated and he was pronounced dead.

Les had been holidaying in Sharm-el-Sheikh
Les had been holidaying in Sharm-el-Sheikh -Credit:Getty Images

An inquest held yesterday (April 24) at Preston Coroner's Court heard that 72-year-old Les, who had recently renovated the bungalow he and his wife had bought in Rufford, died from a rare type of drowning.

Speaking through tears, his wife Martha described the moment she "panicked" when she couldn't find her husband. "We were swimming round and if you're looking at fish you aren't always aware of what's going on around you or above the water," she said.

"My friend was already out of the water and I said 'I can't see Les'. She said he had swam past her just before. There was quite a few people in the water and I just couldn't see him. I really panicked. I just couldn't see him. Then someone found him. It just looked like someone snorkelling. I went to run in but a man said 'no, don't run in'."

Home Office pathologist Dr Brian Rodgers, who is a keen snorkeller and scuba diver himself, concluded that Les had died from an unusual effect of swimming known as immersion pulmonary oedema. The condition occurs when the pressure of the water on a person's body ends up in the chest whereby fluid leaks from the blood vessels into the lungs.

Although a CT scan carried out at the Royal Preston Hospital, after Les was repatriated to the UK, showed signs of heart disease this was not the cause of his death nor did it cause the oedema.

Dr Rodgers explained that Les "would not have been suffering" and would have lost conscious "very rapidly". "He would have felt shortness of breath but that would be very rapid and he then would have lost consciousness," Dr Rodgers added.

The coughing fit Les had experienced while snorkelling the day before he died was likely "a sign of immersion pulmonary oedema", Dr Rodgers said. The condition is more prevalent in fit and healthy individuals with risk factors including swimming in cold water, over-hydration and exertion.

From the outset of the inquest Senior Coroner Dr James Adeley told Martha and her daughters that the task of determining the cause of death had proved "a lot more difficult" given that Les had been embalmed prior to being flown back to the UK.

Embalming is a process where the blood is replaced with a solution to help preserve, sanitise and improve the appearance of the person who has died. The solution typically used is a combination of formaldehyde, natural oils, colourants and water, and embalming is a legal requirement if a body is to be repatriated to the UK from abroad.

After a body has been embalmed any analysis of blood is no longer possible because the embalming fluid has replaced the blood. Some chemical analyses of tissue are still possible, but for others, the embalming may confound the analysis and the evidence is considered to be unsafe.

Returning a narrative conclusion the coroner said: "He is surrounded by lots of people and no one has noticed him in distress and his mask and snorkel were still in place. He hadn't had sufficient time to raise the alarm."

The cause of death was recorded as immersion pulmonary oedema with high blood pressure and high cholesterol listed as contributory factors. "There was nothing you could have done to detect his heart disease or nothing you could have seen on holiday that suggested it was dangerous for him to get in the water," he told Martha.

Dr Adeley admitted that, as a highly experienced coroner, this was the first time he had come across a case of drowning caused by oedema. "In all other cases it's when someone has inhaled water into their lungs," he added.

After the inquest Les's wife Martha described him as a "doting granddad who was laid back and loved life". "He died doing something that he loved and it's a comfort to know he wouldn't have known anything about it," she added.