A MULTI-agency search operation swung into action after hundreds of tons of rock smashed down onto the beach at West Bay on Saturday.

But despite warnings to steer clear of the beaches, within 12 hours, hundreds of sightseers were ignoring the advice.

Even with four cliff falls in the last 10 days on the Chesil Beach near Freshwater and West Bay, people were putting their lives at risk.

Eye-witnesses were left shaken at the weekend seeing people perched on the edge of East Cliff in West Bay and walking all over the cliff falls on the beach.

People posed for photographs by the falls, which happened without warning, bringing a chilling reminder of the devastating collapse which killed Charlotte Blackman in 2012.

Shirley Swaine said she was shocked to see families letting children hunt for fossils right under the unstable cliffs.

She said: “I was one of a handful of regular fossil hunters on the beach on Sunday, careful not to work near precarious-looking sections of the cliffs and always with an ear open for any sound of anything, no matter how small a trickle of sand or soil, that might indicate movement.

“The beach was very busy on Sunday and I was shocked at how, despite the very large sign at Hive Beach warning of the dangers, people were letting their children look for fossils right under cracked and undercut cliffs and there were little bits and pieces falling, maybe only a handful of sand or soil, yet no one seemed alarmed.

“I saw one man sitting on one of the hard ledges enjoying the sun, when a chunk fell with a thump from the cliff directly behind him. He just turned his head to look and carried on enjoying the sun and the view.

“Minutes later there was an enormous roaring and rumbling and we looked up to see a massive section of the cliff collapsing and sliding towards the sea.

“Mercifully there was no one on the beach there at the time.

“Seeing a huge section of the landscape moving like that was utterly surreal, thrilling and terrifying in equal measure and seemingly unreal, like watching a film.

“When it stopped, the slipped section reached almost to the water – and it was low tide.

“My legs were like jelly.”

West Bay coastguard station manager Jamie Staple warned it didn’t need a huge cliff rockfall to be fatal and people should stay away from the cliffs.

He said: “You wouldn’t get me near the cliff edge in any way, shape or form.

“Given the instability of the cliffs and the cliff edges it is extremely foolish and dangerous to go anywhere near the edges, stick to the cliff path.

“Don’t walk underneath the cliffs.

“We have had another huge one just beyond where the girl got crushed two years ago, and they are falling all along that area.”

He urged people to take note of warning signs and not put their lives at risk.

He said: “They are put there for a reason, to stop people getting into danger and difficulties.

“We will always turn out with our full array of facilities – lifeboats, helicopters and ground personnel – to help people, but we would much prefer if they didn’t get into trouble in the first place. We are aware of how dangerous it can be. You don’t need 100 tons of rock to fall off the cliff; you only need a brick-sized bit to fall from 100ft to kill you.

“That is the bit that people don’t quite understand.

“It happens very quickly – you would never outrun it, even if you were Linford Christie.”

Dorset County council emergency planning officer Simon Parker said: “Several people were spotted standing on the edge and at the base of cliffs, as well as climbing over debris on some of Dorset’s beaches at the weekend. We cannot stress enough the danger people are putting themselves, and rescuers, in. As we have seen, landslides and rock falls can happen quickly and without warning.”

In Lyme Regis harbourmaster Grahame Forshaw said people watching storms on the Cobb were risking their lives.

“Sometimes people are so stupid that they don’t understand the strength of the waves,” he said.

“People always think it will always happen to somebody else, that somebody else will be swept off the Cobb or caught in the waves.

“People think that they can outrun the waves as well, which they can’t.

“When you have a wave rushing up to you and you are trying to run up hill, up all that shingle, there is no way you could outrun it.”