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Crocodile death: family tell of grief

March 11, 2002

by Chris Millar

The uncle of a London student killed by a crocodile as she cooled off in an African lake today told of the family's devastation.

  Amy Nicholls: friends saw her dragged under the water

Pat Finn said his 18-year-old niece Amy Nicholls "was so happy, strong, clever and bright, the most gorgeous kid I know".

Mr Finn spoke shortly after Amy's father Alan Nicholls was forced to identify his daughter's mutilated body moments after it was recovered from the water by divers from the Kenyan navy. An arm was missing and she had suffered serious wounds. Her mother Pamela is inconsolable.

Speaking from the family's £1 million home, Mr Finn said: "Everyone who knew her loved her. Her father absolutely adored her and was extremely close to her. As soon as he knew he flew out to Kenya to be where his daughter had been spending the last days of her life.

"He just wanted to be near her. We are all trying to be strong for the family. Her mother is in a complete state of shock and will not see or speak to anyone."

Amy had been paddling in Lake Challa with friends on Friday evening when she was suddenly dragged under the water.

Police launched a search but she was not found until this morning. By then Mr Nicholls, 52, a retired City broker from Hadley Wood, Barnet, had arrived in Kenya. Nairobi police spokesman Peter Kimandhi said: "Naturally he was very upset on seeing his daughter's lifeless body."

Friends who were with Amy at the time of the attack are being comforted by others in the party. An inquest is to be held tomorrow. She had been in Kenya as part of her gap year working on an environmental and teaching project organised by Africa and Asia Venture.

It is understood she visited the lake as part of a weekend off and had asked locals whether it was safe to go swimming. In fact as late as this morning the Kenya Wildlife Service was still claiming the lake was free of crocodiles. But a Nairobi police spokesman said today: "We have established that Lake Challa is infested with crocodiles."

The lake is home to the Nile or Mamba crocodile, a fearsome creature which can grow up to 23ft and kills more humans than all the other crocodile species combined. They normally attack by grabbing their victims in shallow waters and dragging them deeper to drown them.

Richard Venning, regional director of Africa and Asia Adventure, the company which organised the £2,500 trip, said: "The group was hot and sweaty after pitching their tents and some of them wanted to go for a swim. They checked locally with hotel staff that it was safe and when they were assured it was, they went into the lake.

"Amy was standing in the water with two friends when she suddenly disappeared - she was dragged under by something.

"The students are mature and sensible and this tragedy appears to be a freak accident."

The students had been briefed by project organisers on the unpredictability of wildlife and the need for caution at all times.

Speaking from the family's house in Hadley Wood, a family friend said: "Amy had just finished her A-levels and won a place at Edinburgh. She was embarking on the next stage of her life. Conservation was her passion and she had really been looking forward to travelling in Africa."

A neighbour said: "Amy was a lovely, polite girl. She was totally beautiful but not at all conceited. We are all desperately saddened by this."

Amy won her place at Edinburgh University to read geography and sociology after gaining three As and a B in her A-levels at £6,000-ayear St Albans High School for Girls. She decided to take a gap year to fulfil her ambition to work on conservation projects in Africa. She had been there since last month and planned to return home in June.

Carol Daly, headmistress at St Albans High School, said Amy was well prepared for a gap year and had acquired numerous practical skills through the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme and her membership of the Combined Cadet Force, including a medal in lifesaving. She said: "We encouragepupils to go on a gap year for the very reasons that Amy wanted to go. She felt she could make a difference and would be able to contribute. Every activity, has its dangers but of course one doesn't expect this to be the outcome."

Mrs Daly said the school was in a state of shock following the tragedy and was preparing to offer counselling and support to Amy's fellow pupils.

Last year three British public schoolgirls died in a car crash in Malawi during a gap-year trip organised by Africa and Asia Venture. Janie Bell, company secretary-insisted Amy had been "properly-trained in the dos and don'ts of travelling in Africa." Mrs Bell, the wife of company founder Peter Bell said: "Amy was in a group of 18 young people. They were given a four-day orientation course before they started the three-month conservation project at the Taita Discovery Centre in the Tsavo Game Reserve. At the time she was swimming she was not supervised."

The project involved growing trees from seeds, counting invertebrates and encouraging local villagers to protect the wildlife.

© Associated Newspapers Ltd., 11 March 2002

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