THE final moments of a grandmother crushed to death on a cruise holiday have been relived at an inquest into her death.
Preston Coroner’s Court was shown footage from Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth, revealing the scene of panic when Mary Atherton fell between a pontoon and a small passenger ship on her way back from a trip to Cambodia.
The 75-year-old retired teacher from Penwortham, stepped out from the tender – a small boat used to carry passengers to the shore – towards the pontoon just as a gap opened.
She fell between the pontoon and the tender and was crushed.
Pathologist Dr Helen Stringfellow said Mrs Atherton had suffered an “extensive fracture of the skull” and death would have been immediate.
She said she was unable to tell whether there had been any heart-related ill health causing a collapse prior to the fall. The CCTV footage of the mooring shows the tender moving up and down with the swell against the platoon.
Fellow trip-goer Andrew Allen, described the situation as “precarious” and said there were no safety warnings issued before disembarkment started.
Detailing the mooring procedure on the way back to the Queen Elizabeth, he said: “I was expecting a rope to be pulled in and tied round a cleat.
“I was expecting it to be tight, not much gap, but there was a considerable gap and we were moving backwards and forwards.”
He added: “I saw Mrs Atherton at the top of the steps, waiting for a while.
“It looked very precarious and I was assuming they (the crew) had gone to get extra ropes or a gang plank, but then she started to move forward.
“She moved her right foot forward, the boat had moved in by then, but then the boat started to move out again and she seemed to fall away to the left.
“I shouted, jumped up, knowing what could happen and was keen to assist.
“When I got up to the top of the steps, Mrs Atherton was in the water and there was quite a lot of blood.
“I tried to keep the tender away from the platoon by putting my foot on the fending post.”
Mr Allen, who has his own 35ft yacht, told the court how it was only after the death he had learnt it was the crew’s normal practice to use the thrust of the engine to secure a ‘snug’ fit against the mooring, but claimed he hadn’t heard the sound of the engine at that time.
In an email to Mrs Atherton’s son Michael, Mr Allen described the incident as “a tragic and avoidable accident”.
Mrs Atherton has been holidaying with friend of 55 years, Una McDermott, having booked the cruise 12 months beforehand.
She had been on the liner on a previous holiday and had disclosed her mobility problems to Cunard over the phone at the time of booking.
The court heard she suffered from osteoarthritis, Meniere’s disease which affects balance, had a pacemaker and had a toe amputated in October 2014 due to arthritis.
She walked with a stick and due to pain, had a short stride. She struggled with steps and boarding vehicles.
She had booked herself on the half-day Cambodian trip a week beforehand, but only found out the night before that a tender would be used to take passengers to the shore.
Mrs McDermott said: “Mrs Atherton told me she didn’t like going by tender, but she really wanted to go on shore in Cambodia.”
Mrs McDermott, also a retired teacher, said her friend had been “fine” during the holiday, had not mentioned any medical complaints to her, and was confident that she would have been able to handle the tender journey.
She said: “She dealt with her disabilities very sensibly, very wisely.
“She didn’t put herself into a situation she couldn’t deal with, without help.”
Mr Atherton, describing his mother, said: “She wouldn’t let it get her down at all. She took nine tablets daily and it was a bind, but she wouldn’t be defeated.”
He described how her home had been adapted with a stairlift and steps to the front and back door, but there had been no marked change in her ability in the months before her death.
He also said that she had not suffered an attack of Menieres for at least five years and knew how to control it by taking medication and avoiding certain foods.
He said: “She was a sensible woman and made clear her limitations.”