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A young British woman was crushed under a 400-ton landslide as she walked along a beach.
Witnesses described seeing her “hysterical” boyfriend and his father desperately trying to reach her after rocks crashed down from a 45-metre cliff.
The two men had been helped out of the rubble by others on the beach but the woman, thought to be 23, was walking directly under the fall.
As the men fought to find her a second landslide came down, burying her beneath yet more rock.
Emergency services mounted a rescue operation at the popular beach at Burton Bradstock, Dorset, on Tuesday lunchtime using sniffer dogs, mechanical diggers and specialist listening devices.
On Tuesday night a spokesman said they were still in a “search and rescue phase” because it was possible the woman was still alive beneath the nearly 10-metre pile of earth and rocks.
But as time ticked on, the chances of her survival became increasingly remote.
One of the first people on the scene was Gary Rafferty, 36.
He said: “I helped a man aged in his 50s out of the debris. I saw his son who had also been trapped. I said to him ‘Are you alright?’ and he said ‘No, my girlfriend’s trapped under there’. He was quite hysterical.
“Then the lifeboat came and took him and his father off the beach. It must have been very difficult to leave the woman trapped under the rocks.
“They said they had just been walking along the beach and they didn’t hear anything. Then all of a sudden there was this huge landslide which fell down on them.” The beach, which is close to the Freshwater Beach Holiday Park, had been filled with day trippers enjoying Tuesday’s fine weather.
The cliffs along the Jurassic Coast have become severely unstable in recent weeks due to heavy rain followed by dry and sunny conditions, which have led to them cracking and crumbling away.
Rafferty added: “It was the first landslide that trapped the woman. The father and the boyfriend were on top trying to get her out, I could see them trying to move rocks. They were clearly in shock and were frantically pulling the rocks out of the way.
“Then there was the second landslide and luckily they got out of the way.”
Mick Stead, a from the Dorset Fire and Rescue Service, said on Tuesday night: “There was a significant landslip. About a 20-metre stretch of the coastal path has given way. We estimate that about 400 tons of mud and rock has fallen from the top and down on to the beach.
“We have got sniffer dogs searching the pile of mud but we haven’t been able to get close to it ourselves. It is a question of trying to balance the rescue operation against the risk to us.”
He added: “We are trying to find the exact location of the casualty under the rocks based on an eye witness account which suggests it is towards one side of the landslip.
“The rocks are too hot for heat- seeking cameras.”
Rescue teams will work into the night. But the emergency services are consulting geologists about the stability of the cliffs before they begin to search under the rocks.
The landslide happened a week after the bodies of Rosemary Snell and Mike Rolfe were discovered under a mudslide less than 20km away on a Dorset road. Their bodies had lain undiscovered for 10 days.
There was another landslide at Burton Bradstock in February, and others were reported in 2007 and 2008. Tuesday’s happened just three days after the local council warned people about going too close to the cliffs due to their “unstable condition”.
On Tuesday night the council closed off all coastal paths and beaches between Lyme Regis and West Bexington - a 16-mile stretch - for a review by geologists to ensure safety. - Daily Mail