Financial Times journalist killed in crocodile attack in Sri Lanka

Washington Post

Paul McClean, a 24-year-old British journalist for the Financial Times, died following a crocodile attack Thursday afternoon while he was vacationing with friends in Sri Lanka, according to local authorities.

McClean, along with a group of seven friends, had been surfing Thursday on a beach known as Elephant Rock, a popular tourist destination between Arugam Bay and the city of Panama in southeast Sri Lanka. Afterward, McClean needed to use a restroom and ventured alone into a nearby area, overgrown with vegetation, to relieve himself, according to Fawas Lafeer, the owner of Safa Surf School, which is located about a mile up the coast.

McClean then dipped his hands into a nearby lagoon to wash up, Lafeer told The Washington Post, citing local witnesses.

Lafeer, who was about 10 feet away at the time, suddenly heard a fisherman screaming. He ran to the muddy lagoon, where a fisherman told him a crocodile had dragged a tourist - McClean - underwater. For a fleeting moment, Lafeer saw an arm reaching out of the water, he told The Post.

"At the last minute, we saw the fingers," he said. "We tried to find the body, we couldn't."

After Lafeer and the fisherman failed to rescue McClean, they called local authorities. Arugam Bay Police requested the help of the Sri Lankan Navy, which immediately rushed to the scene. But by the time the Navy reached the lagoon, it was past 5 p.m., and too dark to search the waters, Cmdr. Lankanatha Dissanayake, a spokesman for the Navy, told The Post.

On Friday morning, the Navy found a body in the lagoon, about 50 feet from the shore, and identified it as McClean's. It was intact, with wounds on his right leg below and above the knee, Dissanayake told The Post.

The body has been transported for an autopsy, according to Satya Rodrigo, a spokesman for Sri Lanka's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The United Kingdom's Foreign and Commonwealth Office confirmed Friday morning that it was "assisting the family of a British man who has been reported missing in Sri Lanka," but provided no further details.

McClean's relatives were unable to be reached Friday morning by The Washington Post. But in a letter sent to the staff of the Financial Times, James Lamont, a managing editor for the newspaper, said, "it is with great sadness that I have to tell you that Paul McClean has gone missing while on holiday in Sri Lanka."

The letter said few details were known about the circumstances, but that the newspaper was working closely with McClean's family and with the United Kingdom's Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

"Paul is known to many of you as a talented, energetic and dedicated young journalist with a great career ahead of him at the FT," Lamont wrote. "He is a member of the fastFT team in London and joined the FT two years ago as a graduate trainee."

In a story published Friday in the Financial Times, McClean was described as "one hell of a reporter" who was "tireless when mastering a new beat." McClean, who grew up outside of London, was an avid squash player and soccer fan.

McClean graduated with honors from Oxford University in 2015 with a degree in French, according to his LinkedIn account. He previously covered Brexit and the European Union for the Financial Times in Brussels.

"Paul was an inspiration to us all in the Brussels bureau, turning out some of the most original, insightful and deeply researched journalism on Brexit since the referendum," Brussels bureau chief Alex Barker told the Financial Times. "He had a rare gift: an eye for hidden stories, writing flair and the charm to make people tell him anything and everything."

Katie Martin, head of the Financial Times' fastFT team, described McClean as "a warm, funny person and a talented young journalist with a curious mind . . . a joy to be around, truly, with an impish sense of humour."

McClean's brother, Neil, 22, was diagnosed with leukemia in 2014. In an online blog, Neil McClean documented his battle with the disease, including his frequent hospital stays and efforts to find a donor for a bone-marrow transplant. He studied at the University of Glasgow.

According to the British newspaper the Telegraph, McClean's father, Peter, is director of a management consultancy firm and lives with their mother, Irene, in Surrey.

McClean was just one month shy of his 25th birthday when he died, according to the Financial Times.

McClean had been vacationing in Sri Lanka along with a group of two female friends and five male friends, the Navy spokesman said. They were staying at Green Beach Hotel, which offers cabanas and rooms about a 12 minute walk from the beach in Arugam Bay. A desk receptionist said McClean's friends were all out at the lagoon Friday morning as the Navy searched for his remains.

Elephant Rock is a popular beach among beginner's surfers because of its sandy bar and safe, shallow waters. The lagoon where McClean was attacked is located about a half mile from the beach. On a daily basis, fishermen can be seen along a nearby river, lined with mangroves and vegetation.

But, the Navy spokesman said, "the villagers, they don't use that lagoon because they know there are crocodiles." McClean, as a tourist, must not have known, he said.

Lafeer, of the nearby surf club, said three fishermen have been attacked by crocodiles in recent memory, but they have only been injured.

"This is the first time someone has died," he said.

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