Ambulance stories (41)

Tuesday, 5th October, 1999.

I doubt many of you will remember that far back, but this was a bright and sunny day, though it was not very warm. I was on day shifts that week, the time when the rota arrived at a five-shift, Monday to Friday week, with hours of duty from 0800-1600. This meant that we were the third ambulance available at the small sub-station where I worked, just under the Westway flyover, behind Ladbroke Grove underground station.

As usual, the other two vehicles, that had started at 7am, were already out; it was a busy area, after all. We had arrived about twenty minutes early, allowing time to get changed, and have a cup of tea, before spending the day out and about in the vehicle. By 8am, we were checking the ambulance, making sure that we had enough equipment, sufficient fuel, and plenty of oxygen, ready for the day to come. I was to be the attendant that day, and my long-term partner would be driving. Not long after 8am, the emergency phone rang, indicating a message from Ambulance Control. I went to answer, expecting it to be a routine enquiry about the vehicle being in commission, which normally happened around this time. It was a job though, given to me as; ‘female fainted, Sainsbury’s car park, Ladbroke Grove.’ I went outside to tell my colleague, and he drove the vehicle out, as I operated the electric closure for the large doors. This location was very near to us, probably less than half a mile away.  We had not driven more than a few yards, when the radio button bleeped, and our call-sign was repeated, with some urgency. ‘The job has been updated, believed to be a large fire, possible train crash, please advise us on arrival’, was the new message.

As we turned right into St Mark’s Road, we could immediately see a pillar of smoke rising high into the sky, just at the far end. I had seen many fires, and some explosions, but I had never witnessed such a sight before. Ahead of us, fire engines were negotiating the small roundabout, sirens blaring, and we tagged on behind them. They headed straight for Barlby Road, which is across the tracks from Sainsbury’s, and was home to the grandly named ‘Northpole International Terminal’, where the new Eurostar Trains were often parked, and not far from Northpole Road, which had given it its name. We followed the appliances into a small service road, until we came to a large fence. The firemen jumped out, cut through the fence and nearby gate, and we followed them in.

I do not recall ever seeing a train up close, when it was not alongside a platform. The one I was now standing next to, was enormous, an Inter-City locomotive, that in my perception, seemed to facing the ‘wrong way’. Of immediate importance, was the fact that the engine compartment, and the large carriage behind, were blazing fiercely, flames and smoke ascending into the sky. The heat was incredible, and I immediately discarded my uniform anorak, for fear it would melt. Despite this, we saw a fireman place a ladder against the train, so he could climb up into the driver’s cabin, which seemed ridiculously high, from our viewpoint. We followed, and when we saw that the driver was dead, or at least beyond any help we could give, we went back down, away from the dangerously close flames, to look for other casualties. We had already requested all other available ambulances, and as first on scene, we had declared this to be a ‘major incident’. At that time, we had no idea how major it would turn out to be.

There is a protocol for this type of job. The first attendant becomes ‘incident officer’, until relieved. Casualties are not treated immediately, but are tagged with tie-on labels, indicating the severity of the injury. The most severe are tagged ‘Dead, or will die’, and are not treated at all. Walking wounded, and those able to assist others, are directed to a safe holding area, where they are immediately assessed, and placed into categories for removal to hospital. In theory, this is fine. On exercises, when nobody is actually dead, and all resources already in place, it is also fine. In reality, it is a living nightmare, where all preconceptions go out the window, and the human desire to help takes over. But we were experienced men, and we knew that we had to step up, and do the right thing. We were not about to wilt under pressure, as we had been to many serious incidents before, and we could remember how well we had coped previously.

But they had never been like this, and we had never been the only ones there.

I found an area of reasonable size, away from any danger, and began to place equipment there, also removing both trolley beds, and all other stretchers from the vehicle, to lay people on. I arranged the available blankets, oxygen and masks, burns dressings and bandages, and tie-on labels, ready for the anticipated large number of casualties. My colleague grabbed his equipment box, and a portable oxygen cylinder, and headed off towards the tracks, to see what he could do. I did not see him again, for almost five hours.

By now, we could clearly see that two trains were involved, the large Inter City train dwarfing what was left of a small commuter shuttle. Carriages and wreckage were everywhere, spread over the large terminal area, where large numbers of tracks met, on the eventual approach into Paddington Station, the main terminus for West London. There were small and large fires, with some carriages completely consumed by fierce blazes. Across Barlby Road, there was a small school, and the caretaker approached me, saying that he would open it, to use as a holding area for the emergency services. In the distance, we could see the car park wall of the large supermarket, and long ladders were being placed, to allow access from that side of the tracks. Transport Police had arrived, as well as many more fire engines, and heavy rescue appliances. Looking to my left, away from the main area of carnage, I saw a tall man wandering along the tracks in my direction. He looked dazed, and although smartly dressed, was in a filthy state. I thought at first that he was wearing a hat, and it had slipped off his head, resting on his left shoulder. I ran up to him, soon realising that this ‘hat’ was actually his scalp, and it had been torn off in the accident, barely still attached to his head. I sat him down, and bandaged his head, also giving him oxygen, as the black marks around his mouth indicated that he had probably inhaled smoke.

Behind him, I saw the terrifying spectacle of a crowd of people walking slowly towards me. They were all smoke-blackened, confused and shambling, and many had skin hanging from their limbs, burned off in the fierce fires. There was no screaming, nobody was hysterical or crying, and there was surprisingly little noise, other than the crackling of the flames. It was like a scene from a horror film, except that this was real.

Then help arrived.

Everything that had happened up to now, had lasted less than twenty minutes. It had already seemed like twenty hours to me. Ambulance crews from Fulham and St John’s Wood arrived, closely followed by many more. Within an hour, most of the available ambulances in the central area would be committed, as well as many from the Outer London areas, served by County Ambulance Services. I handed over my injured man, and showed the crews to the others that had already walked up to me. Most of the staff left immediately, to make their way into the wreckage, and help those unable to move. I stayed with a small group, that I nominated to run this small casualty clearing area, with the help of the local Police. Serious cases began to arrive, brought by stretcher. Assessments were made, labels tied on, and three distinct groups of patients began to form. There were those requiring immediate removal, to one of four nominated hospitals, and others who could receive intermediate treatment, and then wait at the school opposite. The third group were made as comfortable as possible, as they were not going anywhere. We were soon running out of the liquid covered burns dressings, and extra supplies of everything were on their way, from the main depot stations on the outskirts of London. The ambulances were in a long queue, like taxis on a rank, waiting to be called forward, to collect patients.

Then management arrived.

The London Ambulance service had no shortage of senior operational managers; from local supervisors, to Training School instructors, up to Divisional Commanders. They now arrived on scene, and taking a briefing from me, as first attendant, they took control of the incident. I was now superfluous. There were dozens of staff helping the injured, and the receiving station was working well. Things were getting into gear. The Transport Police were even setting up tents, and had already got a counsellor in attendance, for anyone who needed her.

The Ambulance Service had emptied its Training School of its classes, and brought the shocked trainees, in their pristine uniforms, along to the scene to help. I looked for something useful to do, and found a Fire Brigade officer nearby. He asked me if I had anything white, to use as markers. I got some pillowcases, and other things, like bandage tapes, and followed him towards the wrecked trains. He carried a small hand extinguisher, which he used occasionally, to put out some burning object. These objects turned out to be bodies, bits of bodies, and even tiny fragments of bodies. I marked each tragic pile with a piece of white cloth. They would all have to be collected, for later identification. I had seen and done a fair bit that morning, but that was definitely the worst, and I was glad when we completed this sad task.

By now, the only area not managed, was the traffic problem caused by the endless fleets of emergency vehicles, all trying to get access to the area. I decided that I would see if I could help with this. This would also give me a break from the unpleasantness around the tracks, and the chance to have a cigarette too. Walking the short distance uphill to Ladbroke Grove, I saw for the first time, just how huge this incident had become. The normally busy main road was closed to all but emergency traffic. There were helicopters above, and as far as the eye could see, a long line of waiting ambulances stretched southwards, almost as far as Notting Hill Gate, a mile away. I had never seen anything like it. There were vehicles from Bedfordshire, Berkshire, Hertfordshire, and Essex; also London Ambulance vehicles from across the other side of the city, marked by their divisional colour patches. I also saw the equipment tenders, bringing the supplies from as far away as Ilford. Using my radio, I contacted staff at the casualty clearing area, and slowly began to send vehicles individually down to collect patients, but only as they were ready to travel, thus avoiding the previous congestion. I bumped into many old friends and colleagues in these extra vehicles; some I had not seen for years.

I don’t really remember how long I was there, but it seemed like an age to me. I was eventually summoned by radio, to return to Barlby Road. The majority of the injured had been removed, and as far as evacuation was concerned, things were quietening down. I was directed to a parked car, where I saw my crew-mate, sitting on the pavement. He was absolutely exhausted, and completely traumatised by the whole thing, as he had not stopped working at the scene for almost five hours. He seemed to be on the verge of a breakdown, so I got him into a staff car, and we went back to our base. By the time we arrived, it was almost 2pm, six hours since we had left, expecting to go to a lady who had fainted in Sainsbury’s car park. She had indeed fainted. It was as a result of seeing this train crash happen, as she parked her car against the far wall. I never did find out what happened to her.

We were taken to Fulham Ambulance Station, to participate in a debrief on the incident. The place was in a state of upheaval. Equipment and empty ambulances were everywhere, with trainees and Training Officers attempting to reassemble vehicles into operational order. Hundreds of items of kit were missing, even large trolley beds could not be located. Four hospitals would have to be scoured for these items, as well as the scene of the accident, eventually. In recognition of the work we had done that day, by being first on scene, we were given time off, and also referred to counselling, some time later. My colleague never really got over the horrors of it all, and later transferred to Yorkshire, hoping for a quieter life, working for the Ambulance Service there. He is still there to this day, but it is not really any more peaceful. I declined counselling, suspicious that they would use any information to get rid of me. As a well-known Union agitator, I was always conscious of not giving them the rope to hang me.

Some time afterwards, along with Fire Officers, Police Officers, and others, we were presented to The Queen, in the new Community Centre, in Barlby Road. This was supposed to be an honour, but for me, as a confirmed anti-Royalist, it was just a day off. We were given brand new uniforms to wear for the occasion, then we were told to hand them back afterwards. I declined to do this, but it shows the sort of people that we were working for then.

To this day, this remains as one of the worst ever rail disasters in British history, and the worst ever on the Western Main Line. Thirty one people died in the crash, and and 258 were injured, many seriously. Some will carry the scars of their burns or injuries for the rest of their lives. All will live with the mental scars; the victims, and those who did their best to help them on that day.

27 thoughts on “Ambulance stories (41)

        1. I think it puts a large part of my life into context. And it does make me feel that I deserve my retirement. 🙂 Though I’m not sure whether it helps to get it out of my head, or just stirs up even more stuff that is lurking in there. 🙂
          Best wishes, Pete.

          Liked by 1 person

  1. Thanks, Pete. I’m not surprised it has stayed with you after all these years. I have read and done online courses about how such emergencies are dealt with, but nothing compares to being there (or even to a personal account). Yes, the thing about the uniform does not surprise me (and I don’t blame you on the counselling front either). I’m antiRoyalist myself, but a day off is nice anyway. I’m sorry to hear about your partner but you are true heroes. Thanks for sharing something that remains shocking to this day for you and all the people involved.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Luckily the nerves were numbed enough that some of the victims were unaware of the tragic state they were in or you would have had uncontrollable screaming. Of course you are fully aware of that! Keeping your cool under this situation shows a true first-responder, Pete! Those people may not remember your name, but they will remember your service.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Pete, my cup runneth over. Utterly harrowing. What a hero you are! Thank you for sharing this incredible story. A xx

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  4. I think many people would be shocked to know how the situations like this are dealt with, but I can see that it is the only way to deal with them; very sobering to think about.

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    1. Cheers Eddy mate, it is always more involved than it seems on the news. A lot of patients complained about their treatment afterwards, which made some of us feel very bad at the time. On reflection, you realise that you can only do your best, with what you have available.
      Regards to you and Gosia, Pete.

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      1. I suppose that it is worth noting, that the London Ambulance Service later received a national award for the way it handled that job.
        My colleague and I were chosen to go to Harrogate and accept it, and we met one of the most publicised victims, as she was still recovering from facial burns. We had a brief chat with her, and she thanked us personally. That was an unusual thing to happen, and brought home the suffering to me too, in a more personal way that I was used to.

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  5. I remember reading about the accident when it happened. I wasn’t aware how people are tagged in groups and how big accident scenes like this are managed. I really enjoyed reading about it from your perspective. Must have been a horrific day.

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    1. It was certainly a ‘day to remember’ Mari. There is a memorial at the site now, and the crash is always referred to, whenever rail safety is being discussed on TV. Regards from Norfolk, Pete.

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