A family friend of missing Lancashire mother Nicola Bulley said “nothing is making sense” on Tuesday as specialist underwater divers searched a stretch of river where police believe she may have fallen in.
Heather Gibbons spoke on the banks of the River Wyre while, below her, Peter Faulding and his team from Specialist Group International, used a sonar to scan the depths on day 12 of the search.
Family and friends of mother-of-two Ms Bulley, 45, have questioned the police “theory” that she probably fell into the water while walking her dog, after dropping her children off at school in St Michael's on Wyre, Lancs on January 27.
Ms Gibbons said speculation, rife on social media, about the disappearance, was “hard” for the family to take and a stream of visitors, members of the public arriving from far and wide, some bringing children and taking selfies, had made the area feel like a “tourist spot”.
She said: “I think it’s incredibly hard, but up to a certain level, we understand it’s human nature, it’s natural for everyone to have speculation, because the truth is in this, nothing is making sense.
“The turnout for the search has been amazing, it has been incredible.
“But we have noticed it does feel like some people have come to maybe use it as more like a tourist spot, to do their own personal social media things which in some ways we see and understand but it is hard, there’s a lot of people around as it is, so yes, if you are here to join the search, we are really appreciative.
“The truth is if we look at it factually, no-one knows until we have some evidence.
“I know that the family are massively appreciative of all the police have done.
“As family and friends, the way we are looking at it is, between Peter and his team and the police, we feel we have got the best of the best on that water and hopefully it will be a completion, one way or the other.
“And if they find nothing, then maybe its time to start looking down other avenues.”
Meanwhile, police revealed on Tuesday they are speaking to more than 700 drivers who travelled through St Michael’s on Wyre around the time she went missing.
At a press conference, Lancashire Police Supt Sally Riley said: “We have now identified around 700 vehicles that drove through the village on that morning on the 27th January at around 9.10am, 9.15am.
“We are in the process of speaking to all of those drivers to try and find out if they have any dashcam footage, what they saw on that day or anything else that may be of value to the police inquiry.”
Supt Riley said thousands of pieces of information had been received from members of the public, with a team of 40 detectives currently investigating approximately 500 different lines of enquiry.
She said: “This is normal in a missing person inquiry and does not indicate that there is any suspicious element to this story.
“The inquiry team remains fully open-minded to any information that may indicate where Nicola is or what happened to her.”
Lancashire Police said their extensive inquiries into the disappearance have “so far not found anything of note”.
Supt Riley told the press conference: “Throughout this investigation... we remain fully open to any information that is credible and factual to try and trace Nicola and bring answers for her family but it does remain our belief that Nicola sadly fell into the river and that this is a missing persons inquiry.
“Any information that comes in that indicates otherwise is being checked out all the time and negated as each inquiry comes up. We're not closed in any way to any particular line of inquiry and we remain genuinely open to that.
“All these extensive inquiries however have so far not found anything of note.”
The force has been working with the Coastguard, Lancashire Fire and Rescue and Specialist Group International to search the river and riverbank using sonar, pole cameras and underwater drones.
Supt Riley added: “As I said on Friday, the river is a complex area to search, it's not a still water, it's a fast-flowing moving water that is tidal in parts, and as acknowledged by some of the many national search advisers and experts... this makes it particularly complex.
“We have already discounted particular areas of the river but as they are tidal we have re-searched them to ensure that nothing has been washed back into those searched areas.”
Earlier on Tuesday, Mr Faulding said that if Ms Bulley is not found in searches on Tuesday or Wednesday, he does not believe she is in the river.
Mr Faulding told Radio 4’s Today programme on Tuesday he is “very surprised” she has not been found already if she is in the water.
“The initial area where Nicola went in, where the bench is, the police thoroughly searched that the same day, and did it again days later,” he said.
“From all my experience, I would expect a body...to go straight down to the bottom, and remain there until the body starts to decompose and then it will start moving.”
He added that there is not enough of a current in the River Wyre, where police believe Ms Bulley may have fallen, for her to have been moved downstream on the day she went missing.
Mr Faulding said of continued search efforts “today we’re going to concentrate again upstream in the non-tidal section of the river, including past the bench again, just in case”.
Speaking on BBC Breakfast on Tuesday, he called the case “so unusual”.
“Normally when we deal with a drowning victim, they are where they go down.
“I would expect to find Nicola in the water right in front of the bench where she went down. She would not have moved, maybe two or three feet.
“This is so strange. In my 20-odd years of doing this, I have worked on hundreds of cases, I have never seen anything so unusual.”
Detectives investigating the disappearance of the mother-of-two have released a new image of her from the day she went missing.
It came as her partner of 12 years told how her daughters, aged six and nine, “miss their mummy desperately” and “need her back”.
Police continue to theorise she slipped into the river, but say they “remain open minded”.
In a new statement released on Monday evening, her partner, Paul Ansell, said: “It’s been 10 days now since Nicola went missing and I have two little girls who miss their mummy desperately and who need her back.
“This has been such a tough time for the girls especially, but also for me and all of Nicola’s family and friends, as well as the wider community and I want to thank them for their love and support.
“If anyone has any information which could help find Nicola, I urge them to get in touch with the police and help us provide the answers we all so badly need.”
Monday saw diving and forensics experts from Specialist Group International join police, bringing along a £55,000 sonar machine to scour the riverbed for clues.
Meanwhile the detective leading the hunt for Ms Bulley made a fresh appeal for anyone with dashcam or other footage to get in touch.
“Our working hypothesis remains that Nicola sadly fell into the river for some reason, but we remain open minded, and we are continuing to carry out a huge number of enquiries,” said Lancashire Police.
“Our priority throughout this investigation has been on finding Nicola and providing answers for her family.”
Police have searched the river and riverbank all the way to the sea, using search teams, sonar, search dogs, a drone, and a helicopter.
Update: Today, my team and I will focus our search upstream in the non tidal section above the weir, and about one mile upstream including past the bench where Nicola’s phone was found. #NicolaBulley @LancsPolice #media pic.twitter.com/ZsdqjYBsnT
— Peter Faulding (@peter_faulding) February 7, 2023
A derelict house on the other side of the river to where Ms Bulley was last known to have walked has also been searched, as have empty caravans in the area.
Officers have also gathered CCTV footage, carried out house-to-house enquiries, spoken to witnesses, analysed Ms Bulley’s mobile phone and Fitbit - but no clues as to her whereabouts have been found.
Detective Supt Rebecca Smith said: “The team working on this investigation are completely dedicated and determined to find Nicola.
“As a mother myself, I can’t even begin to imagine what her two children are going through.
“Please be reassured that our sole focus is Nicola and that we are doing everything we can to find her.
“It is not possible to provide every piece of information to the public because to do so would detract from the investigation, but I’d like to thank everyone who has assisted us so far and for the support provided to Nicola’s family at this extremely difficult time.
“They are being supported and updated throughout.
“I would ask that anyone who was driving/cycling through St Michael’s last Friday morning and who has dashcam footage to get in touch with us if they haven’t already done so. I would also ask in fisherman who may have been in the area at the time to make contact if you feel you can assist.
“I would also appeal again to anyone who has any other footage – CCTV or Ring Doorbell for example, or any other information, no matter how insignificant you might think it is, to contact us as every small piece can help us build up a picture.”
Ms Bulley is white, 5ft 3ins tall, with light brown shoulder-length hair. She speaks with an Essex accent. She was last seen wearing a long, knee length black quilted gilet with a hood.
Beneath this she wore a black Engelbert Strauss coat underneath which had long sleeves and came to her waist. She was wearing tight black jeans and had long green walking socks tucked into her jeans. She was wearing size 5 ankle-length green wellington boots from Next.
Her hair was tied into a ponytail, and she was wearing a pale blue Fitbit.
Timeline of events
8.26am - Ms Bulley leaves her home with her children
8.40am - She drops the children off at school and has a brief conversation with another parent.
8.43am - She walks along the path by the River Wyre towards the gate/bench into the lower field, having dropped her children off at school
8:47am (approximately) - A dog-walker – somebody who knows Ms Bulley – sees her walking around the lower field with her dog. Their two dogs interact briefly before the witness leaves the field via the river path
8.53am - Ms Bulley sends an email to her boss
8.59 am - She sends message to a friend
9.01am - She logs into a Microsoft Teams call
9.10am (approximately) - A witness – somebody who knows Ms Bulley – sees her on the upper field walking her dog, Willow.
9.20 - Her phone is back in the area of the bench
9.30am - The Teams call ends but Ms Bulley stays logged on
9.33am (approximately) - Ms Bulley’s mobile phone and Willow are found at a bench by the river by another dog walker.
Anyone with information or footage is asked to call 101, quoting log 565 of January 30 .For any immediate sightings, please call 999.