Kent Hero died after 'jumping into freezing canal' to save autistic man who had fallen in

-Credit: (Image: Jenkins Family)
-Credit: (Image: Jenkins Family)

A heroic carer from Kent tragically lost his life along with the autistic man he was trying to save after they both plunged into a freezing canal, an inquest heard.

Ceri John Jenkins, affectionately known as 'Ces', 60, and the man he was looking after, Aaron Ritchie, 49, both died after entering the Leeds and Liverpool Canal in Wigan on the afternoon of November 28 last year. Specialist divers pulled both men from the water during a large-scale emergency response, but they later died in hospital.

Ceri, who was from Bromley but living in supported living accommodation in Wigan, had been encouraged to take Aaron, who reportedly had the mental age of a ten year old, for his favourite walk along the canal while building work was ongoing.

His wife, Lorraine Jenkins, in a statement read out at Bolton Coroners' Court, shared that her husband was born in Bromley, Kent, where he lived with his parents, sister and younger brother. The family relocated to Wisconsin in the USA but later returned to the UK, settling in Halton, a picturesque village just north of Lancaster, reports the Manchester Evening News.

The court heard that Aaron Ritchie (pictured) 'loved' outings with staff members -Credit:The Jenkins Family
The court heard that Aaron Ritchie (pictured) 'loved' outings with staff members -Credit:The Jenkins Family

She added: "If Aaron had got into difficulty Ces wouldn't have thought twice and would have jumped in to try and assist because he would think that's the right thing to do," Mrs Jenkins stated, reflecting on her husband's character. The court learned that there was no 'direct evidence' to clarify how both men ended up in the water.

Expressing gratitude, Mrs Jenkins thanked everyone who attempted to aid Ceri and Aaron on the tragic day, including the emergency services and the hospital staff. "I know they tried everything they could to help them," she acknowledged.

Ceri, like his father, was academically gifted and had earned a scholarship to study at Oxford University where he achieved a 'very good degree', the inquest heard.

Mrs Jenkins reminisced about her marriage to Mr Jenkins in 2000, where he embraced the role of a devoted step-father to her three children. Describing his varied interests, she noted that Mr Jenkins had an 'eclectic' taste, enjoying activities ranging from cabinet making and DIY to tennis, gardening, and following Manchester United and the Wales rugby team.

"He was the most loving and supportive husband you could ever wish for," Mrs Jenkins fondly recalled. She also highlighted how her husband took on the role of a carer with great pride, especially when it came to assisting individuals with autism.

Jacqueline Darbyshire, Aaron's aunt, shared through a statement in court that Aaron, an only child, faced challenges from birth, living with autism and epilepsy which impacted his entire life. Due to his disability, Aaron did not experience mainstream schooling and had difficulties with communication, reading, and writing, as informed by the inquest.

After losing his mother in 2007, Aaron moved into supported accommodation, Mrs Darbyshire explained, adding that he felt 'comfortable' around familiar faces.

Aaron, who had the mental age of a ten year old and was described as being 'fixated' with spinning tops and hanging shoelaces on washing lines, was portrayed in court as 'quite lovable'. However, he could also become 'moody and obstructive' when things didn't go his way.

His vocabulary was limited, extending to a few words including some swear words, and he lacked any sense of fear, Mrs Darbyshire explained.

The court heard that Aaron 'loved' outings with staff members, particularly enjoying strolls along the canal towpath, where he would often jump up and down excitedly at the sight of water. Despite his enthusiasm, he wasn't 'fixated' to the point of jumping into the water, she clarified.

Mrs Darbyshire recounted that her nephew had a tendency to run off when feeling 'giddy', but had been taught not to cross roads without his carer, although he still had 'no sense of danger'. Typically, he would heed instructions from his carer 'more or less always'.

When asked about the incident, Mrs Darbyshire admitted 'we will never know' exactly what transpired, but she suspected that he might have slipped due to the icy conditions under the bridge, saying: "He might have slipped because the towpath was slippy... I just think he slipped in. It was icy under that bridge."

During questioning by Ceri's brother Steven, it emerged that a change in temperature could trigger one of Aaron's seizures, during which he might fall or stand rigid with clenched fists, the court learned.

The inquest into Ceri's death was temporarily halted when Steven Jenkins, representing the Jenkins family, suggested that his death may have been a workplace accident, despite occurring on the canal. He highlighted the need to investigate the training provided and any risk assessments carried out.

Senior Coroner Timothy Brennand decided to postpone the proceedings until later in the year, stating that the new hearing would examine potential 'systemic failings'. He encouraged both families, who were unrepresented by legal counsel in court, to consider seeking the assistance of a specialist barrister. The inquest is set to continue on December 4 and 5.

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