Deadly spring for Amsterdam's canals

Four bodies were found floating in Amsterdam’s canals this springtime. By year-end, that number is expected to quadruple. PHILIP HOFMAN reports on what makes the canals a pretty, yet deadly landmark. 

Amsterdam’s canals really draw people in. Around 2.8 million canal cruise tickets are sold each year, making it the second most visited attraction in the country. Countless other Amsterdammers and visitors take a free, leisurely stroll along its banks. Some lucky people live and work there too. The water-rich heart of the city is on UNESCO’s world heritage list for both its beauty and its clever 17th century blend of hydraulic engineering and town planning. But besides history and elegance the canals also have a dark, deadly side. About 15 people a year drown in the cold, murky waters of Amsterdam’s picturesque canal ring and its adjoining waterways. This spring, four bodies were dredged out of the water in scarcely a month’s time. 

Gruesome find 
By the end of March, the remains of 40-year-old wine merchant Gijs Thio, who had disappeared weeks earlier, were found floating in the Oosterdok, near the central library and Nemo science museum. Barely a month later, just days apart, three more bodies turned up in the capital’s waters. Body parts found in the Singel and Passeerdersgracht over the course of several days in April proved to belong to 36-year-old Irishman Paul Nolan-Miralles, who had gone missing six days before the first gruesome find. During the search for Nolan-Miralles, the remains of a 41-year-old Polish man turned up in the water running along the busy Stadhouderskade. Just a few days later, an unknown woman’s body floated in de Kostverlorenvaart, on the western side of the city centre. The case of Paul Nolan-Miralles, who had been living in Amsterdam for the past ten years, and worked as a bartender at the Hard Rock Cafe, is especially harrowing. After work on Wednesday 13 April, he went for a drink with three friends in a local whisky bar. The next day, he did not turn up for work and friends contacted family in Ireland. Paul’s sister Anne Ravanona traveled to Amsterdam with her husband to search for her missing brother. They visited shops, cafes and restaurants to ask for security camera images and possible sightings. In an interview with Amsterdam newspaper Het Parool, Ravanona said that during the search, she and her family were always several steps ahead of the police, who she accuses of negligence. Camera images of the Holland Casino, which may have shown her brother dropping into the water had not been secured due to a police mix-up. The family sourced their own technical expert to decipher Paul’s mobile phone data, which they obtained on their own initiative as well. 

Horror story 
The search turned into a horror story when passengers on a boat spotted his intact body in the Singel canal and staff of the Hard Rock Cafe said they recognised it as their colleague Paul. After an unsuccessful recovery attempt by the police, the body sank and floated off. It was spotted again a day later, but as boat traffic was not halted, it drifted off once more. The next day Paul’s brother, brother in law and cousin, who happens to be a marine biologist, got into a boat with sonar equipment, to search for the body of their loved one. All they found were body parts, as Paul’s body had by now been torn to pieces by a boat’s propeller. In the presence of Paul’s girlfriend, the relatives had to hold on to a large part of his lower body for an hour, until police arrived to retrieve it. “That was beyond human endurance,” Paul’s sister Anne said to the Irish Times. And to Het Parool she said: “We have been traumatised for life. That my brother had to fish Paul’s body parts out of the water is inhumane. My brother is not doing too well.” She calls into question the police’s judgement to class Paul’s disappearance as a missing person’s case, while his watch, wallet and bicycle have all disappeared. The police stated they do not want to discuss the family’s criticism of their part in the search operation through the media, only with Paul Nolan-Miralles’ family directly, through family liaisons officers. 

No fencing 
The police was happy to talk to AT5 television however, about the less self-incriminating question why so many people drown in the canals. “Very often alcohol is the cause,” said Rob van der Veen of Politie Amsterdam-Amstelland. Urinating in the water after drinking plenty of alcohol is a particularly dangerous combination. “It lowers the blood pressure a little, they feel unwell and topple into the water.” Once in the canal, by whatever cause, people are overcome by the stone cold water and can drown very quickly. That raises the question whether placing fences along Amsterdam’s waterways is an effective way of saving lives. In Binnenlands Bestuur, a publication about government policy, a spokesperson for the municipality of Amsterdam pours cold water on that idea. “Where to start? The risk of accidents is always there. Then we can also place fences along streets, so people cannot be run over by trams or cars.” Encouraging alcohol moderation is the preferred policy from Amsterdam city counsel. “We press the message to bars and cafes to stop serving alcohol to customers who have already had a few too many.” Maybe some advice can be aimed at male punters too, reminding them to visit the lavatory before going home, or choose a tree over a canal, when nature makes an urgent call on the way.