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Almost half of drowning deaths linked to drinking, new research finds

Peter Wright’s team of volunteers has pulled the bodies of nearly 50 people out of the Murray River near Albury. Photo: James WiltshireA woman was so drunk that after she nearly drowned in the Murray River on Christmas Day, she offered her rescuers a sherry, a witness alleged.
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One of her rescuers Phil Clarke said the woman “was lucky she got snagged, otherwise she would have been swept down the river”.

“She offered us sherry when she got out,” he told the Border Mail newspaper.

“I guess it’s a cautionary tale – it’s pretty silly,” said Mr Clarke.

With his father in law, Mr Clarke from Melbourne jumped into the Murray at Noreuil Park in Albury to save the woman whose leg was stuck in a tree.

Being very drunk while swimming is not unusual, finds new research.

It found more than 40 per cent of the 770 people who drowned in ‘s inland waterways in the past 10 years had been drinking, It confirms the strong link between alcohol, drownings and reckless behaviour in the water.

Of those adults who had been drinking and subsequently drowned, 70 per cent would have failed a random breath test on the roads, says the paper to be published in January’s edition of Accident Analysis and Prevention.

About 40 per cent of adults who had been drinking before they drowned had a blood alcohol reading of more than 0.20, four times the legal limit. Another nine per cent had drunk 0.10 to 0.19, and four per cent registered 0.05 to 0.09, said the report.

Nearly 83 per cent were male.

Often recovering the body takes three days of diving, while families and friends wait on nearby river banks to wail, wait and watch.

“The hard things about drownings is you have family gathering around. And you got people there, and it is just bloody sad,” said Mr Wright.

“Some of these diving jobs go for two or three days, and to front up there, to see the grief on these people’s faces. You just can’t bear it – it tears your heart out,”  said Mr Wright.

The only way to find the bodies in the pitch-black waters of the Murray is by touch.

“The water in there is black and there is no visibility. You are doing it by feel.”

“Alcohol is a major contributing factor. If you have been drinking, and you get into trouble, you will drown. If you are a poor swimmer, and you get into trouble in the river, you will drown,” he said. “It is the avoidable nature of these drownings that is the frustrating thing about them,” said Mr Wright. He volunteers with the Corowa Rescue Squad, which often works with the Albury and Border Rescue Squad.

Mr Wright, 62, is the longest serving and medically certified rescue diver in the NSW Volunteer Rescue Association yet he is determined to keep diving because there are so few volunteers.

He says the number-one reason people die or struggle in the water is because they panic, and that’s more likely to occur when people have been drinking.

“Alcohol with water is extremely hazardous, whether you are boating or swimming. You get no second chances. If you are in the river, and you have had a bellyful of alcohol and you get into trouble, the chances are you will drown. And alcohol and the river, they just don’t mix,” he said.

To prevent further drownings, Mr Wright also visits schools to talk about water safety and the need to respect the river.