Sarah McClay zoo keeper death: Tiger walked through 'open' door

Sarah McClay Image copyright Stephen McClay
Image caption Miss McClay died hours after the attack at the safari zoo in Cumbria

A tiger which killed a zoo keeper got to her by going through an open enclosure door, an inquest has heard.

Witness Gareth Bell, 34, of Newcastle, said he saw the tiger come through a door at the Cumbria safari zoo and drag Sarah McClay by her neck into a den.

The 24-year-old died after the attack at the South Lakes Wild Animal Park near Dalton-in-Furness in May 2013.

A jury in Kendal heard that systems were in place to keep animals and keepers apart through lockable doors.

Within the tiger enclosure was a light den and a dark den for the tiger which keepers were required to enter in the course of routine duties such as cleaning.

On Monday, the inquest heard that a bolt on the top of the dark den door, which opened on to the keepers' corridor, was found to be defective in the hours following the attack.

Image caption Padang walked in through an open enclosure door from outside, the hearing heard

But Barrow Council's senior environmental officer, Owen Broadhead, said the defective bolt on the door of an internal enclosure could have been caused by emergency services after the attack - meaning it was not faulty at the time.

Mr Bell, 34, was visiting the park - which changed its name to South Lakes Safari Zoo earlier this year - with his wife Mary, 33, and saw the attack through the tiger house window.

'Turned and pounced'

He said the Sumatran tiger moved through an internal sliding gate which linked the light den to the dark den.

He then saw the zoo keeper with her back to it, putting down a bucket.

In "a split second" the tiger went through the door of the adjoining dark den which led on to the corridor, he said.

He said: "I saw it coming through the door. It tore through. It just walked straight through.

Image copyright Julie Cush
Image caption The jury has heard that lockable doors were in place to keep tigers and keepers apart

"It walked past her first because she was in the corner and it turned to get her. She was not expecting it to be there.

"It turned and pounced.

"When I looked back I looked where she was. The tiger had her by the back of her neck. It was dragging her back into the (dark) den."

He said he turned away to call for assistance and when he looked back the door to the dark den had shut.

'The tiger is out'

Mr Bell said he went to the far viewing window and looked into the light den where all he could see was an arm coming out of a sliding gate which led to the dark den.

He told Paul Rogers, representing the safari zoo, that the dark den door was "sufficiently open" for the tiger to get through.

It is thought he was the only person to witness the attack.

Fellow zoo keeper Emma Els told the hearing that Miss McClay had let her into the tiger house shortly before the attack to grease the internal sliding gates.

Image caption Fellow zoo keeper Emma Els said Miss McClay had let her into the tiger house shortly before the attack

But she ran out of grease and was let out of the tiger's dark den by Miss McClay.

She said she could not recall whether her colleague locked the dark den door after letting her out.

Mrs Els said the Sumatran tigers - including the attacker Padang - were locked outside and not in the enclosure at that time.

'Sarah was on her back'

When she returned to the tiger house, someone shouted "the tiger is out", she said.

"At first I thought it was a joke as people are always saying 'there is a cat behind you' .

"When I got to the viewing window I could see Sarah and Padang.

"Sarah was on her back with Padang behind her. I remember shouting on the radio 'Padang has got Sarah, I need help'."

Her husband, Cornelius, a maintenance worker at the park forced open the entrance door with a crowbar.

He saw the door to the dark den was not locked. He also saw that two sliding gates which allowed internal access for the tigers were open, the jury heard.

Miss McClay, from Glasgow, died from multiple injuries including puncture wounds to the neck.

The hearing continues.

Image caption Padang had been outside minutes before the attack

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