FOCUS: The Thames; the River That Bewitches Its Sad or Reckless Victims ; A Woman Hauled from Its Depths Proved Not to Be Missing Amanda Dowler. but Every Year 70 Bodies Are Engulfed in Its Treacherous Waters. Sonia Purnell Investigates
Purnell, Sonia, The Independent (London, England)
When a woman's body was hauled out of the Thames at Sunbury Lock on Tuesday, it made headline news for a day because of fears that it might be the missing teenager Amanda Dowler. But for the Thames river police the find was another tragically routine part of the day's work.
England's second longest river may have its frivolous aspects - think Henley, punting at Oxford and The Wind in the Willows - but flowing as it does through one of the world's largest conurbations it is bound to have its darker side, too.
More than 70 bodies a year are found in the 190 miles from the river's source source near Cirencester to its 10-mile-wide estuary at Gravesend. The tally of corpses is such that the Metropolitan Police employ a full- time identification officer at Wapping, east London, for bodies found in and beside the Thames.
Many are murder victims - often killed elsewhere and then dumped in the fast-moving river to delay discovery for up to two weeks or more and eliminate vital evidence. Some are gangland killings. Others are more mysterious, notably the suspected murder of the Vatican banker Roberto Calvi - under Blackfriars Bridge in the Eighties - which was dressed up as a suicide.
The majority have taken their own lives, jumping off any of the two dozen bridges, particularly at Battersea. Some are the victims of what the police call "misadventure" - the ill-judged antics of adult men with a skinful of booze. Many hundreds of luckier souls are plucked alive from the Thames every year.
Last summer, two young males fired up by beer and their team's victory in a rugby match thought it would be fun to float home afterwards by river. They blew up bin bags, threw them in and jumped in after them. One man was rescued almost immediately; the body of the other was not discovered for four days.
A few casualties are never named. The full might of the Met, and the intervention of Nelson Mandela, have not been able to identify the small boy whose torso was found floating in the river in September. A worldwide investigation has failed to come up with anything much more than the theory that he was the victim of a ritualistic murder.
The Thames may afford some of the best views in Britain, but its swirling waters make it lethal. Frequently enveloped by thick fog at the estuary, the river has an extraordinary tidal reach almost unknown inland. Passers- by and boat passengers dabble with it at their peril. The chances of surviving a tumble into the Thames can be lower than falling in front of a Tube train.
Each tide will see water moving at least 12 miles in either direction, often at speeds of 10 miles an hour or more, five times faster than the strongest swimmer. Near bridges the speeds can be even higher, producing deadly whirlpools and back eddies that can sweep away victims at breakneck speed or crush them against or under obstructions such as jetties, boats or piers.
The emergency services who arrived within six minutes of the Marchioness disaster in August 1989, when 51 passengers on a pleasure launch lost their lives after a collision with a barge, were astonished not to find more survivors or bodies on the scene. Many victims were already miles away up- or downstream, and despite being apparently within easy reach of land did not stand a chance. …