A MAJOR search has been launched for an elderly canoeist feared to have drowned after he fell out of his boat into the River Thames.
Witnesses raised the alarm after hearing a "loud splash" near an exclusive neighbourhood in Reading before spotting an empty canoe.
Specialist divers are now scouring the river along with search rescue experts and cops.
The canoeist was heard to fall out of his boat on Wednesday morning and immediately disappeared beneath the surface of the rain-swollen fast flowing river.
The canoe was then found floating downstream with no-one inside it.
The elderly man had apparently set out from the Reading Canoe Club on the banks of the Thames in Caversham, Reading, at about 11am yesterday.
After hearing a "loud splash", a passerby saw the empty boat and ran to a nearby fisherman, asking him to raise the alarm.
Members from the canoe club joined in the hunt for the missing man – but it was widely feared he had gone to the bottom of the river and had possibly been entangled in reeds.
A spokesman for Thames Valley Police said today: "Yesterday officers were called to a fear for welfare incident at the River Thames near Caversham Bridge. A man entered the water but wasn’t seen to leave.
"Searches are being carried out to locate him but he has not yet been found."
The elderly canoeist was believed to have drowned in the River Thames only yards from an exclusive riverside neighbourhood.
A total of 40 crew members from the fire service, police and ambulance services were involved in combing the river for the man after he fell into the fast-flowing river.
Peter Godfrey, a fisherman who was watching the drama, said: "There was a man in a canoe who fell into the river. I found out when a man cycled down and asked if I had seen the man who had fallen in.
"They were searching for him but it was not long before the emergency services got here. They were searching for him up and down the river for a long time. They were just going backwards and forwards for hours.
"I never saw the man but I spotted the canoe drifting down river."
Passers-by on the banks of the Thames near The Warren told how they saw an air ambulance nearby before a police helicopter was spotted hovering only 50ft above the water, looking for the missing man.
George Scott, who witnessed the search, said: "It was just before 1pm that I saw the police boat was out on the water. Apparently a member of the public had heard a loud splash and they had spotted the empty canoe and raised the alarm.
"There were three fire engines and an incident commander from the fire service as well as police, ambulance, the air ambulance and then police helicopters.
"They found the canoe but they could not find the man. The helicopter was hovering 50ft above the water looking for him. They were looking for a good while.
"There were even three paramedics in the water as well as a boat from the fire service and police."
Mr Scott estimated that at the height of the search there were 40 members of the emergency services at the scene in the leafy Berkshire town.
The missing man was believed to have been a member of the nearby Reading Canoe Club.
Last night the club had been closed and the flag was flying at half mast.
A note on the gates said: "Due to an incident, activities from the club are cancelled today. We are thinking of all those affected by today's events."
Superintendent Nick John, Commander for Reading local policing area, said: “We are continuing to carry out searches for the man today.
"Alongside officers and a diving team, Berkshire Lowland Search and Rescue are assisting with these searches.
“There will be an increased police presence in the local area as we carry out this work.
"If anyone has any information that they believe may be useful, you can get in touch by calling 101.”
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