An elderly motorist watched his wife drown after he failed to put his handbrake on properly and their car rolled into a freezing River Fal, an inquest heard today
David Pewter, 76, was waiting for a ferry with wife Ann, 74, and their two beloved pet dogs when he climbed out to take photos.
Ann was sitting in the passenger seat of their Mazda when the vehicle rolled down the slipway and sank in the 25ft deep River Fal nearTrelissick, Cornwall.
An inquest in Truro heard Mr Pewter had put the handbrake on to two out of six notches - not hard enough to keep the vehicle from rolling down the slope.
He could only look on in horror as the runaway Mazda floated for several minutes as his wife clambered on to the back seats to reach their dogs rather than climbing out to safety.
The retired electrical engineer told the inquest he believed he had put the handbrake on when he got out beside the King Harry Ferry crossing.
The couple, from Tavistock, Devon had visited St Just in Roseland Church near Truro before the tragic accident on March 20 last year.
Mr Pewter said: "We left the church before 4pm and began making our way back and drove along the hill and down to the ferry and for some stupid reason I got out of the car.
"I was about to take a picture and to my amazement the car started moving slowly forward and I couldn't catch it.
"The handbrake was on. I put it into gear and I can't think what happened.
"The next thing I know it rolled slowly down into the water. It kept on rolling. It just floated and then it disappeared."
The inquest heard rescuers dived in to help but could not save Mrs Pewter or the couple's dogs, described by Mr Pewter as "members of the family."
Garrick Royle (corr), operations manager of the King Harry Ferry, heard the car hit the water from the opposite bank.
He sped over in a small boat to try to reach Mrs Pewter, assisted by mussel diver Matt Vernon who dived down about 12 times to search for her but could only hold his breath for about 30 seconds at a time in the murky waters.
Mr Royle said: "I heard a crash and looked behind me and saw the car I saw it splash, it was quite a big splash.
"I could see the passenger window open and it was floating still quite high. There was a lady in an orange jumper who had climbed back onto the seats. I shouted and there was no response."
"It floated for four minutes before it went down.
"The window was open and I was really confused why she wasn't getting out but it turns out the dogs were in the back and she was probably trying to get to them."
Craig Jenkins, a company director and regular passenger on the ferry, had parked in front of the couple's car and watched as it rolled past.
He said: "I saw something in my rear view mirror and I moved forward a few feet.
"I saw the car go passed me and Mr Pewter chasing the car. It then landed in the water.
"I could see the silhouette of a person through the back window leaning towards the back."
Rescue teams from the Navy, coastguard, RNLI, police, fire and ambulance personnel arrived soon after but Mrs Pewter died along with her two dogs.
The car was winched back on to the slipway and rescue workers immediately draped a green tarpaulin over the vehicle while Mrs Pewter and her pets were recovered from the back seats.
She was later declared dead at Royal Cornwall Hospital at Truro.
Mark Richards, a forensic vehicle examiner for Devon and Cornwall Police, inspected the vehicle after it was recovered.
He said the car was found turned off with the handbrake applied two out of six notches - not hard enough to hold the vehicle on the sloping slipway.
He said: "The ignition was on the off position and the parking brake was applied two out of six notches. The transmission was in neutral."
Recording an accidental death deputy coroner for Cornwall Mr Barrie van den Berg, said Mrs Pewter had died from drowning.
He said: "It's clear that what's happened is tragic accident. It rolled into the river and it's understandably affected everyone that was there."
The King Harry Ferry connects St Mawes and the Roseland Peninsula with Feock, Truro and Falmouth and is one of only five chain ferries in England.
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