Ambulance stories (17)

The leg on a buffer

There is little in life that can prepare you for having to carry a severed head. No amount of training or experience can make you ready for that moment when you have to throw a blanket over the detached item, and actually pick it up.

I had not been on front line duties very long, when we received a call to go to Paddington Station. An Inter-City train had arrived at this large London terminus, and the driver had discovered the remains of a human leg, wrapped tightly around the buffer at the front of the engine. As we were making our way, it was decided to divert us to another station, where it was possible that we might find more substantial parts of whoever had come into contact with this high-speed train, as it sped into London from the West Country.

We went to Kilburn Bridge, where the train had passed through. Railway staff led us off the platform, and along the tracks. It was early, about 8am, and very cold. It was also the busiest time for the daily commute into the capital, so the trains were allowed to keep running. We wore high visibility over-jackets, and railway staff also had warning flags. It was still rather disconcerting, as trains were approaching in both directions, and we often had to walk in the small gap between them. After walking for a long time, in the direction of Paddington, we could find no trace of anything. We then had to trudge back, and return to the ambulance to report. In those days, there were no personal radios, so our only contact was through the radio in the vehicle.

Ambulance Control advised us to attend Queens Park station, a few miles further west. Staff there had reported seeing what looked like blood, on the tracks. On arrival, station staff confirmed this, and told us that they believed there would be remains on the tracks as well, in the area out of sight of public view. This necessitated stopping the trains both ways, and there was a short delay, as this was arranged. We prepared our equipment. The trolley bed, which empty weighed almost seven stones, an assortment of blankets, carry sheets, and an old-fashioned Furley Stretcher, unchanged since the First World war. We also had to take our life-saving equipment, as well as oxygen, on the offchance that we would find someone badly injured, but still alive. We carried all this down the flights of steps into the station, and when it was confirmed that the trains had been halted, we walked off the end of the platform, once again heading east, towards the train’s destination.

We were unable to wheel the trolley bed, due to the railway sleepers, and the large stones laid between; so everything had to be carried, a very arduous prospect. After almost a mile, we were getting pretty tired. Despite the cold weather, we were hot and uncomfortable in our safety jackets, and full uniform. I then saw, what was unmistakably, a human hand, lying between the tracks. A few yards further on, there was a badly damaged torso, with the remains of a leg still attached. After further investigation, we discovered some fingers, part of an arm, and most of a left foot. All of these pieces were marked for later collection, and we continued our search. Around a small bend, I saw a chilling sight. The severed head of a man, propped on a sleeper between the tracks, his badly damaged face looking towards us. It was low enough to have escaped further contact with the many trains that had passed over it.

We could now estimate that we had most of the parts that constituted a complete man, save the right leg, which was still around the train buffer in Paddington. Using plastic sacks, sheets, and blankets, we collected the pieces from the tracks, and placed them on the trolley bed, using the old-style stretcher as a base, as it could be washed later. I then had to go and recover the head, which was resting forlornly on the cold ground. I held a blanket, bullfighter-style in front of me, and draped it over the vacant face. I then picked up the bundle, which was surprisingly heavy, and walked back, placing it onto the stretcher with the other bits. All that was left, was to carry the whole thing back along to Queen’s Park station, and take the body to the local hospital, for official certification of death by a doctor.

The British Transport Police investigated the incident, and we later found out what had happened. The victim was an alcoholic vagrant. He had been sitting drinking with friends, on a wall that backed onto the railway. After one too many bottles of cider, he had fallen backwards off the wall, into the path of the train. His friends hadn’t bothered to report this to anyone, as they should not have been on Railway property. As a result of his unfortunate death, I had been presented with my first experience of this type of job, and of carrying a head for the first time. I left the mortuary, thinking that if I could do this, I could do anything.

48 thoughts on “Ambulance stories (17)

    1. I never once vomited because of jobs at work, Jude. I was still squeamish though, especially when having to pick up body parts, or stuff intestines back into abdomens. Eye injuries affected me the worst. I could hardly bear to look at them as I was treating them.
      Best wishes, Pete. x

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I think it was just four in total, Mary. But that was the first and only one I ever had to pick up. Though I did move one out the way another time, and suggest to a colleague that she pick it up. (Tube trains. People jump (and get pushed) under them all the time.)
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. “As a result of his unfortunate death, I had been presented with my first experience of this type of job, and of carrying a head for the first time. I left the mortuary, thinking that if I could do this, I could do anything.”

    Thanks to the alcoholic vagrant, you were suddenly ahead of the game!

    Liked by 1 person

        1. Precisely, I can say the same (waiting alone for the police to arrive at 3am after the shop had been broken into and the CD cabinet had been raided….several occasions)

          Liked by 1 person

  2. I was thinking about the awful things ambulance staff have to deal with the other day, parked in stopped traffic, when a woman died in a car crash that left a two year old in critical condition. It must break your heart sometimes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You rarely have time to think about it, Sue. The pressure to get the job done to the best of your ability, followed by the constant pressure to be available for another new job. But when you stop, as I did in 2001, it all comes back to haunt your memories, undoubtedly.
      Best wishes, Pete.


  3. “I held a blanket, bullfighter-style in front of me”

    Gruesome topic Pete, but I’m glad you still have your sense of humour and timing that I remember from the mess-room.


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