A POLICE chief has called on students to “reflect very deeply” on their drinking - after a fourth river death in just 15 months was only averted by a dramatic rescue.

Assistant Chief Constable Dave Orford said “reckless consumption of alcohol” had played a part in the deaths of Durham University students Sope Peters, Luke Pearce and Euan Coulthard in the Wear since October 2013 and a fourth tragedy was only prevented by the bravery of his officers.

“My appeal to the student body is to reflect very deeply on these four incidents.

“I believe the reckless consumption of alcohol has played a part in all of them – and there’s a high degree of responsibility there.

“You need to look after yourself and your friends. Don’t leave university either with a prosecution from us or having put yourself or your friends at risk.”

His uncompromising message was echoed by Police and Crime Commissioner Ron Hogg, who said he was totally shocked at the incident and it was very fortunate Durham was not mourning the loss of another young life.

“A lot of this is about personal responsibility. This young man was seriously drunk. He wasn’t able to look after himself.”

However, Mr Hogg, who also praised the bravery of the rescuers, also pointed to wider issues.

Students must look out for each other, bars and clubs must act responsibly, high-strength lagers and ciders must be removed from sale, a minimum unit price for alcohol must be introduced and licensing legislation must be reformed to give the authorities greater enforcement powers, he said.

High-level talks on the issues are planned for next week.

“It could have been much worse,” Mr Hogg said.

“How many people are going to be down there at that time of the day? The young man is extremely fortunate.”

The discovery of the body of 19-year-old law student Euan Coulthard in the Wear a week ago completed a shocking trio of deaths in the river in recent months.

Sope Peters, a 20-year-old economics student, drowned in October 2013 and Luke Pearce, a 19-year-old engineering student, died last May.

There have been growing rumours of a sinister link, but Mr Orford said: “What we’re dealing with at face value is the reckless consumption of alcohol very close to the river.

“People may want to come up with their own conclusions. We’ll deal with the facts.”

Earlier this week, the City Safety Group, which includes Durham County Council, Durham University, Durham Students’ Union, Durham Police and Durham Cathedral, announced an independent safety review of riverside safety – to be conducted by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents.

More immediately, a student night bus is to be introduced and taxi firms are being encouraged to offer students a safe journey home.

There will also be more educational work with students and pubs and clubs and a volunteer-led night-time support scheme; and measures will be considered to tackle the availability of cheap alcohol.

Terry Collins, the council’s director of neighbourhood services and chair of the group, said it was pleased no-one had died in today’s incident but extremely concerned and appealed to people to consider their safety when out in Durham.

“As a group we are determined to do everything possible to make our city a safe place to enjoy a night out,” he added.

However, not everyone is happy with the authorities’ response.

An online petition calling for safety improvements such as barriers has attracted more than 15,000 signatures less than a fortnight.

Oliver Mawhinney, a second-year geography student who was woken by the police helicopter responding to today’s incident and reported from the scene for the student newspaper Palatinate, said: “There’s a lot of anger over the safety measures – they don’t go nearly far enough to prevent another tragedy.

“I don’t think we should be playing the blame game. There’s a culture – students are going to drink alcohol and measures need to be implemented to increase alcohol awareness.”

Lenny Jesinghausem, a third-year philosophy student, said: “The students feel something needs to be done in general.

“Nobody wants the whole river fenced off, but there seem to be certain areas of the river which are more dangerous than others.”

Hamish Cooper, who studies geology, said: “There should be a fence, especially along the river from the boat house to Hild Bede College.”

Nathaniel Opedo, 20, a sports and exercise student, said: “You can’t hold the uni(versity) and other people responsible.

“Sometimes people need to take responsibility for themselves.”

Not all students feel the same, however.

Asligual Armaghan, a history student, said: “I feel students should not only take some part of the responsibility for themselves for drinking, but why don’t we try to find the remedy for the drinking problem as well?”

Flavia Cahn, 19, said: “This has always been about men. Us girls always walk back home together – and keep safe.”

The university today wrote to all students urging them to drink responsibly, not to walk home by the river at night and not to walk home alone, or let their friends walk home alone.

Paulina Lubacz, the university’s chief operating officer, said she was relieved the student had survived and thankful for the presence of mind shown by the passer-by and the courage of the emergency services.

“We take the safety of our students extremely seriously and we’re all dismayed by recent events. We are working very closely with partners, already, on river safety,” she added.

Ms Lubacz said the safety warnings were getting through to a lot of people, but the incident was very disappointing and the university would keep trying to get the message home.

A Durham Amateur Rowing Club spokesman said the club was closed at the time of the incident and it was unconnected with any of its activities, but it is helping police with their enquiries.