THE COUPLE killed in the Beaminster Tunnel tragedy were just seconds from safety, an inquest heard.
Following a day-long hearing at County Hall in Dorchester, senior coroner for Dorset Sheriff Payne ruled that 72-year-old Michael Rolfe and 67-year-old Rosemary Snell had died as the result of an accident which 'could not have been foreseen'.
But he said that “If they had been 30 seconds earlier or later, this would not have happened.”
Earlier the inquest a witness told of the shocking moment she saw the couple's car enter the tunnel ahead of her.
Patricia Roberts drove into Beaminster Tunnel some distance behind another vehicle, but stopped when she was confronted with 'a wall of mud and water'.
Mrs Roberts turned the car around and said to her husband: “I hope they got out okay.”
The mud was reported to be up to 12 feet high, and had crushed Mr Rolfe's Skoda Fabia to less than a metre.
The inquest heard that Mr Rolfe, of Fivehead, Somerset and Mrs Snell, of Misterton, Somerset, died instantaneously.
But David Ashcroft, who owns the land at the southern exit of the tunnel, told the hearing that the felling of 42 trees on the slope since 2004 had led to the land becoming 'extremely unstable'.
He said: “It was a landslip waiting to happen”.
Mr Ashcroft told the inquest he raised concerns in 2004 about tree felling undermining the stability of the land but his warnings about the felling of 42 trees had "fallen on deaf ears".
He added: "It is a well-known geographical fact, if you cut down trees or vegetation on a slope of more than 45 degrees, you are going to get some kind of landslip movement."
Questions were also raised over the length of time which elapsed between the landslip which killed the couple on July 7, 2012 and the discovery of their bodies on July 16.
Head of Dorset Highways Management Mike Winter denied that cutting down the trees could have led to the landslip.
He said: “A number of trees were felled which were on steep banks and posed a significant risk of falling over.”
Mr Winter added that just two trees and a number of brambles had been cut back on slope at the northern exit of the tunnel, where the fatal landslip took place.
The inquest heard that it is not known who owns this land.
David Clinton carried out an expert report on the state of the land as part of Dorset Police's investigations into the tragedy.
He said: “It is possible the removal of trees from the slope may have contributed to the landslip, but it is unlikely to be a significant factor.”
Dr Clinton pointed to other contributory factors, the most likely being ground saturation following 'exceptional rainfall', but also burrowing animals and the poor state of a drainage ditch.
Responding to questions from family members of the victims, Dr Clinton said he believed the ground would have been very saturated even if the drainage ditch had been in good working order.
When asked if further such tragedies could be prevented, he said: “In older constructions such as this tunnel, the slopes are steeper than we would nowadays design them.
“We can't prevent them falling unless we go along and strengthen them, which has been done recently.”
Mr Winter said that £2.5million was spent re-structuring the tunnel, which re-opened in July last year.
He admitted that work recommended in 2011 was not carried out, but said it would not have prevented the landslip.
Detective Superintendant Paul Auger, of Dorset Police, said there had been no information immediately after the landslip that a car could have been under the rubble.
He said: “We would not explore something and put officers in danger if there is no suspicion that someone is there.”
Beaminster Fire Station Commander Mark Greenham added that while thermal imaging equipment was used on the night of the landslip, nothing was detected.
The inquest also heard that no criminal charges will be brought against Dorset County Council following a police investigation because 'nobody could have foreseen' what happened.
Giving his verdict, Mr Payne said: “Ultimately what happened was an accident.
“If they had been 30 seconds earlier or later, this would not have happened.”
Couple were 'soul mates'
THE inquest head that Mrs Snell and Mr Rolfe were 'soul mates', who had shared a romantic meal and a glass of champagne on that fateful evening.
As a doctor, Mr Rolfe spent years working in Africa and Oman and specialised in treating those with AIDS.
His wife died in 2008 and son Mark told the hearing that his father had 'become a different man' when he met Rosemary.
Mrs Snell's niece Angela Williams said in a statement: “She was a perfectionist in everything she turned her hand to, and a good friend to all.”
Speaking after the hearing, Mrs Williams said: “I think the verdict was the right decision.
“I'm just glad she wasn't on her own.”