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Perils of cliffs where nine-year-old girl died in rock fall were known to locals

People near the beach at Seaton Garth in Staithes, North Yorkshire where a nine-year-old girl died in a rock fall Wednesday afternoon. Photo credit: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire
People near the beach at Seaton Garth in Staithes, North Yorkshire where a nine-year-old girl died in a rock fall Wednesday afternoon. Photo credit: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire

Villagers living close to where a nine-year-old died in a rock fall by a beach have said the cliffs there are notoriously unstable.

The girl, who has not been named, died when she was hit by falling debris from the 150ft cliffs in the picturesque seaside village of Staithes, in North Yorkshire.

It is understood the youngster was visiting Staithes with her mother when the tragedy happened on Wednesday, just on the other side of the sea wall to the harbour, at the eastern of the village.

The scene was around 100m beyond a prominent red sign, screwed to the rock face, which warns of the dangers of the cliffs.

But people who live in Staithes said visitors are often not aware of the constantly crumbling nature of the shale rock, saying youngsters often hack it with hammers looking for fossils.

One woman described how she challenged a family picnicking right under the sign only to be told it was just a "few pieces of shingle" likely to come down.

A woman who has had a house in the village for more than 30 years said local people knew not to go too close to the cliffs as minor collapses were common.

But she added: "How do you tell everyone who comes? It's just not possible."

She said locals believe the recent weather had made the cliffs more unstable, especially with a long dry spell followed by heavy rain.

One cottage in the village has recently showed dramatic movement, with the home-owner having to leave through a window after hearing a loud crack, she said.

The woman said she was on the beach, which was "teeming with people" on Wednesday afternoon.

"I was on there with my grandchildren and we left just before this happened," she said.

"It is absolutely terrible what's happened. Fortunately, we had walked the other way."

The woman, who did not wish to be named, said the emergency services arrived very quickly, especially given the difficult access to the harbour down one narrow, cobbled street.

"They did a terrific job, all of them," she said.

Other people on the beach at the time described how ambulances and fire engines were crammed between the old fishermen's cottages and the beach.

They described how people scattered, leaving their belongings where they were as an air ambulance landed on the small beach within the harbour walls.

Another helicopter landed on the cliff tops, they said, and the Staithes lifeboat was launched.

Katie Swart, visiting with her family from the Lake District, said: "It's just terrible. So sad."

One man said: "We were just round there with our two yesterday, knocking on the cliffs for fossils.

"It doesn't bear thinking about. What an absolute tragedy."

North Yorkshire Police said the girl died after suffering serious head injuries at around 4.45pm on Wednesday.

A spokesman said: "Sadly, despite the efforts of the emergency services, the girl died at the scene from her injuries."

"The beach was reopen on Wednesday afternoon and some people laid flowers on the harbour wall, close to the scene."

A single sunflower was pinned to the cordon on Seaton Garth before the barrier was lifted.

And St Peter's Church, in the centre of the village, opened for people who wanted to contemplate what happened.

Inside was a candle, a books of poems and a tribute which read: "Please remember in your prayers the young girl who died on Wednesday in a tragic accident.

"Remember also all her family and all affected by this incident."

It is not the first rock fall tragedy to happen along the British coastline.

In June 2015, Georgina Le Fjord died after she was hit on the head by a rock falling from a cliff on a beach at Llantwit Major, between Swansea and Cardiff on the Glamorgan coast and, three years earlier, 22-year-old Charlotte Blackman died after being buried by tonnes of rock following the collapse of a cliff on a beach in Dorset.