It was a ‘moment of horror’ that will haunt climber Joseph Faichney for ever – the split-second decision that saved his own life but sent his friend plunging 180ft to his death.
When an abseiling trip went tragically wrong, Mr Faichney found himself being dragged towards the edge of a cliff. His only means of escape was to release the rope tying him to his friend, Malcolm Hall, causing Mr Hall to fall to his death on the rocks below.
Now Mr Faichney, the father of a one-year-old boy, has spoken for the first time about the awful events of that day last year, his 28th birthday, and the trauma of being arrested while still in shock over the tragedy.
Subsequently absolved of blame by prosecutors, Mr Faichney says: ‘It was surreal. I couldn’t believe that I was suspected of deliberately killing my friend. I did the only thing it was possible to do at the time.’
Disaster struck on July 18 last year when Mr Hall, an experienced abseiler, took Mr Faichney to Kettleness Cliffs in North Yorkshire.
Mr Faichney said: ‘Malcolm did a lot of abseiling. I was watching him one day and said that it looked like fun. I’d tried it when I was in the Scouts, but that was a long time ago.
‘He said he would take me as a birthday present and teach me how to do it. I was really excited.’
The pair arrived at the clifftop at about 10am and Mr Hall, 51, chose three ‘fixed’ points to which he could anchor the abseiling rope: the cliff edge; a large boulder about 20ft from the edge; and Mr Faichney, who had the rope around his waist and secured with safety clips. The inquiry into the death of Mr Hall said these anchor points were not sufficient.
Mr Faichney said: ‘At the top of the cliff, he was talking me through what he was doing. He pulled on the rope and said ‘You see, it’s not going anywhere’ and reassured me. He went over the top and everything was fine.’
But a few moments later, with Mr Hall halfway down the 375ft cliff, Mr Faichney noticed the rope around the boulder moving and slipping. The rope came loose from the rock and, to his horror, Mr Faichney felt himself being dragged towards the cliff edge.
He frantically tried to dig his feet in, but struggled to get a hold and screamed in vain for help.
He said: ‘I was waiting for the rope to loosen, thinking Malcolm would realise that something was wrong and get a foothold. At the same time the rope was cutting me.’
Mr Faichney, a jewellery-maker, said there was so much force on the rope he ‘feared it would cut me in two’. He added: ‘I thought, ‘I’m dead here.’ From somewhere I found superhuman strength and kept digging in, but the ground kept giving way. I was dragged along until I was two or three feet from the edge.
‘I released the rope by managing to pull the clips off. It spun me round and the rope just went – I just felt it go out of my hands. There was a moment of horror as soon as that rope slipped off that rock.’
Mr Faichney flagged down a passing car to summon rescue teams and watched as an RAF helicopter later winched Mr Hall from the beach. Mr Faichney said: ‘I thought he might have just broken a leg or something. The last thing you want to think of is what might have happened.’ But while being treated for shock in hospital, Mr Faichney was told by police that Mr Hall had died and that he was under arrest on suspicion of manslaughter. However, the CPS later concluded that he took the only reasonable action he could.
At an inquest earlier this month, Teesside assistant coroner Malcolm Donnelly said Mr Hall was the ‘author of his own misfortune’ as he had not put the necessary safety procedures in place.
Mr Faichney said: ‘In some ways this has changed me for the better, I appreciate every day and I’m grateful for the love of my family. On my birthday I am planning 29 acts of kindness, one for each year of my life, as a tribute to Malcolm.’