A grandmother died instantly when her home was engulfed by a landslide caused by torrential rain, an inquest heard today. Susan Norman, 68, was watching TV in her pyjamas when her ground-floor flat was destroyed by the landslip in Looe, Cornwall on March 22, 2013.
Mrs Norman’s death was so quick that she was still in a sitting position when emergency workers entered the two-storey house after 11.30pm.
A post-mortem examination found that the mother-of-three had died as a result of crush injuries to the head and chest.
Neighbour Dwayne Bown, 24, told the inquest he only just managed to escape the landslide.
He said: ‘I arrived home at 11.30pm. You could see the rain coming off the road. It was torrential.
‘I heard a few really loud bangs so I got out of bed to see what was going on. As I left to go into the front room of the flat there was a second bang and that’s when the house moved, causing the floor to drop in front of me.
‘I couldn’t assess what was happening until I got out onto the landing which meant kicking down the door.
‘You could see water and mud coming down onto the landing while I was trying to get out.
‘The entrance had got blocked completely so I had to climb over dirt and water and mud.’
Mr Bown said he didn’t initially think victim Susan Norman was at home at her ground floor flat – but remembered hearing her TV.
He escaped by climbing down a wall as stairs he would usually use outside were ‘filled with debris’.
Rowan Beckingham, who moved into the upstairs flat in February 2013, revealed that there had been a landslide nearby months earlier.
He said: ‘When we moved into the flat we were aware there had been a landslip further along our road and this occurred around Christmas 2012. There was building work going on to fix the damage caused and it was due to last about four months.
‘The road outside our house was shut because of the works. This building work would cause a slight shaking to our flat and it would make a cup of tea shake.
‘Over the course of the time I lived at the flat I would regularly stand outside on our balcony at the front of the flat and I saw, about 20 yards up the road, there were large cracks in the road, about 5ft long. Over the next month these cracks gradually got wider and wider.
‘Me and my partner would often joke about how deep they were. I presumed the cracks were as a result of the landslip and the building machinery may have made it worse.
‘At the beginning of March I remember there was a problem with the cliff at the rear of our property. I do remember asking why the council was not fixing it and she replied that they would not do it fast enough and so she would get someone in.’
Mr Beckingham said that over the coming weeks he saw workman removing rubble from the cliff.
‘I saw the builders had dug a hole into the wall of the cliff and I heard the sound of machinery and saw one of the builders holding a large corrugated pipe to the area they had been working and I could see they were pumping what I presumed to be concrete into the cliff,’ he said.
‘I could clearly see what they were doing. I remember thinking at the time it was crazy putting concete into a cliff if there was a problem with it. I remember seeing the foreman there so presumed they knew what they were doing.’
Mr Beckingham was not at home when the landslip happened. He was alerted to the incident by his letting agent and returned to the scene afterwards.
He said he saw the foreman and confronted him.
‘Because I was upset I said ‘Why did you put that concrete into the cliff?’ He immediately got irate and said he did know what I was going on about and the cliff had been bulging for a few days and they had been fixing it.’
Dr Amanda Jeffery, who carried out the post-mortem examination, said: ‘Mrs Norman died as result of injuries sustained when her flat collapsed following a landslip at the rear of the property.
‘Mrs Norman had suffered a catastrophic head injury and crush injuries to the chest. She was clearly alive at the time the building collapsed. Nothing could have been done by the paramedics to have altered the outcome as the injuries sustained were incompatible with life. It is likely she was killed almost instantaneously.’
The inquest, which is being heard before a jury and is due to last up to three weeks, heard that repair work was being carried out to a retaining wall behind Mrs Norman’s home prior to the landslip as it had been seen to be ‘bulging’.
Neighbours also reported a previous landslip on the same road a few months earlier, in which other repair work was being carried out.
The house, called Veronica, was owned by Christina Miller and had been converted into one ground-floor flat and two upstairs flats, the jury was told.