Tuesday 5 October 1999 started as a normal day for me. Totally, utterly, predictably, normal.
I don’t remember every single detail, it was a long time ago now, but I do remember the most important details, vividly in actual fact, because Tuesday 5 October 1999 turned out to be anything but normal. Two commuter trains would collide at Ladbroke Grove, leaving 31 dead and more than 500 injured. I was one of the latter.
I made an early start that bright and sunny, slightly chilly, day, and it began with a train journey of all things, from Hertfordshire into London Kings Cross and then onwards to Paddington.
From there, with two female colleagues, I was due to travel to visit the England Football Team at its Bisham Abbey training camp to complete some business for one of the Football Association’s sponsors, a client of the agency I worked for at the time.
We were due to catch a Thames Train service just after 8am and, having grabbed a coffee, made our way to the platform to board what we knew would probably be a busy three-car suburban service. So busy in fact that we decided not to walk right to the front of the train to find seats, but grabbed some free space we spotted in another carriage, little realising the gravity of that decision. We had probably just saved our own lives.
Taking our seats, with me and one colleague facing each other, adjacent to the central aisle, and my other colleague next to her, I can recall very little about what happened before that train departed on the journey it would never complete. We chatted, I’m sure, we were excited to be visiting Kevin Keegan and his players, I know, we weren’t expecting anything untoward at all, I’m certain.
To say that the train never completed its journey is an understatement of some magnitude, we barely got any distance at all, for the collision occurred at 08:08, just a couple of minutes after we pulled away from Paddington Station, totally unaware of how our lives would be turned upside down, quite literally, in the next few minutes. For many, whatever they were doing at that point would be the last thing they ever did, a thought which I find difficult to come to terms with even now.
The passengers on the other train were, naturally, totally oblivious too. It was the 06:03 First Great Western from Cheltenham to Paddington, an HST, or High Speed Train. The facts, to explain what happened next in the most simplistic terms, are thus – our train should have held at a red light just outside Paddington, in order for the HST to pass before we were routed onwards to continue our journey. It didn’t.
We passed straight through that red light and, at almost 08:09, collided head-on with the HST at a combined speed of approximately 130 miles per hour or 210 km/h.
Bearing in mind how vague my recollection is up to this point, everything now comes into complete focus…..remarkable clarity in fact.
I heard, rather than felt, the impact initially. An awful, unforgettable moment in time, thankfully brief, where I distinctly heard the sound of screeching metal on metal, like a scream, and my mind registered…’we’ve hit something’.
For a short period I was totally powerless. I had no hold over my destiny whatsoever. I had no control over whether I lived to tell this tale, as I have eventually decided to do, or whether my addition to the statistics would settle on injured or dead.
I knew it as well. Believe it or not, I really knew it. ‘We’re having a terrible accident, you can’t do anything about it, you can’t even raise your arms, all you can do to protect yourself is close your eyes’ – I was actually telling myself that while it was happening, or at least my mind was.
I think now it was a self-defence mechanism, almost like my mind was preparing me for the worst, while hoping for the best.
It seems bizarre to see those thoughts written down in black and white for the first time, but that is genuinely what I was thinking as our carriage rolled over, flinging us around inside it like socks in a washing machine, which is how I described it afterwards.
I’ve never been in a washing machine, but you get my drift.
I can’t tell you how long it lasted, for I have no idea, and have never asked anyone, but felt like an age, which I know it wasn’t.
Eventually, we stopped.
I was alive, I knew that much. After a few seconds I plucked up the courage to open my eyes, and what greeted them was a scene of utter devastation. You’d have been hard pushed to tell that it was a train carriage to be honest.
All the fixtures and fittings, the seats and such like, were a mangled mess and we had finished up on our side, with a set of doors immediately above me, on the ceiling, if you will.
I could see that straight away, because I was upside down, looking up, trapped in some of the mangled wreckage, the result of what had quite clearly been a horrific impact with something, though I had no idea what at this stage.
Everything was still, there was just silence…eerie, eerie silence, everyone coming to terms, as best they could, I think, with what just happened.
My immediate concern was for my colleagues and I needed to know that they were okay, and I felt a compelling need to tell my family that I had, at least as far as I knew, survived relatively unscathed. Adrenalin was pumping.
But, hold on, what’s that wet sensation, I wondered? Was I imagining it? No. Was it water? No, too warm. Diesel? That’s all I could smell. Where was it coming from? My head, I realised, and it was blood, no question.
Time to get up and see if the rest of me was in one piece…..
It was like everyone made the same decision at the same time and suddenly, crying, sobbing, shouting, screaming, calls of ‘fire’ echoing from somewhere else, and then, mercifully, just a few minutes after what ever happened, happened, sirens; the emergency services en route. Relief.
Extricating myself from the sharp, metallic embrace of what I think was the remains of a luggage rack, I stood up, and surveyed the scene from the correct perspective, looking for my colleagues, both of whom were close by, alive and, relatively speaking, thankfully in one piece, if slightly shocked.
One was definitely more injured than the other but, like me at this stage, would have been classed as walking wounded. As I implored them to follow other passengers who were making their way towards safety at the rear of the wreckage, I remember someone looking at me, slightly wide-eyed. I thought at the time it was shock, but discovered later that it was at the extent of the cut to my forehead, and the large flap of skin that was hanging down as far as my right eyebrow. That, and a similar one on the back of my head, accounted for the blood, which was now flowing more freely.
I’m not sure whether it was due to adrenalin, but my own instinct was to stay put at that point. There was a passenger with a suspected broken leg who I thought might need assistance, he certainly wasn’t walking off, and I was totally pre-occupied with finding my mobile phone, which had, unsurprisingly, disappeared from my suit pocket.
The ‘floor’ was piled high with debris and it quickly became apparent that the chances of finding my phone were remote, but amazingly, I stumbled upon another one and dialled home. No answer – would you believe that! Instead I phoned my parents and, when my mum answered, told her there had been an accident near Paddington and that I was alive but knew very little else, except that it was bad. That was all I could manage and, safe in the knowledge that I had at least let everyone know that I was safe, I carefully put the phone back where I found it.
To whoever’s phone it was, I say thank you. That was a very important call for me to make and I remain extremely grateful. Incidentally, my own phone, along with my other belongings were returned to me in plastic evidence bags a while after the accident. Everything reeked of diesel. I destroyed it all.
There were only a couple of other people left in the carriage at this point, and I could hear the emergency services close by, so I decided to stay with the injured passenger and wait for them to turn up. Sure enough, just a couple of minutes later, the doors (on the roof, remember) slid open, and I saw a fireman peering down in to the carriage.
The adrenalin seemed to have stopped pumping at this stage and I was shaking like a leaf and still bleeding profusely, so I explained my situation and he told me they would help me out, and then get a medical team in to help the other passenger. He dropped a ladder down and I, rather unsteadily, clambered up towards the fresh air.
I will never forget the scene when I got there. I used the words ‘utter devastation’ earlier, to describe the interior of the carriage, post-accident, but feel now that they might have better applied to the scene outside. It quickly became apparent that we had collided with another train, and it was obvious that people had died. It’s not a scene I ever want to see again, but equally I am glad that I took a few moments to take it all in. Does that make sense? Fourteen years on, I might have still been wondering…….
My next job was to try and get off the carriage without suffering the ultimate ignominy of surviving a train crash, only to perish trying to escape the wreckage. An army of fire and ambulance staff, along with uninjured passengers who were helping them out, were waiting for me to slide down to safety, but that carriage was pretty high, and I was feeling pretty ropey….scared, even.
Also, everything was covered in diesel, it was all I could smell for weeks afterwards, and was very slippery, so much so that I genuinely thought I might fall off. With what felt like my last ounce of courage, I slid down and let the group below catch me and lower me to the ground.
I was spent. All in. Blood loss, shock, and the sudden onset of the affects of my other injuries, no longer being masked by the huge hit of adrenalin, all combined to bring me to a complete halt. I couldn’t walk. I could barely even stand.
Two woolly scarves, hastily loaned by other passengers, not that they would ever want them back, served to temporarily stem the bleeding from my head injuries, and a wheelchair was brought to transport me to the area , outside Sainsbury’s, being utilised as a medical / rest centre, for those who had ‘made it’ and didn’t need immediate track-side treatment.
A good deal of passengers were very gravely injured and only later would I realise just how lucky I had been.
That journey up the embankment was tough and I am sorry for whoever was pushing! Wheelchairs don’t like gravel, but eventually we made it, and I joined a line of other survivors, the scarves around my head now soaked with blood, my face covered with it.
I was in bits. I could tell I was still bleeding, my neck and especially my shoulder were agony and I had pains in my stomach, the top of my arm and my back. What I really wanted was a cup of tea, but I was allowed nothing, in case surgery was required, and a short while later I was seen by a paramedic who attached a post-it note to my front, which apparently indicated that I was high priority for an ambulance when one became available. Bizarrely, people were still doing their shopping at Sainsbury’s, and walking past with their carrier bags!
A normal Monday morning, utterly, predictably normal. For some.
One of the passengers who was helping to looking after me (how awesome that they did that, by the way) called my Dad to let him know I would be taken to the nearby St Mary’s hospital and then they spent the rest of the time talking to me, to ensure I stayed awake. I know, it’s one of those things you see in the movies or on TV, but it really does happen, and I really did want to go to sleep. It was like my body had had enough for one day.
Eventually, and again, I have no concept of the time scale involved, I was wheeled in to an ambulance and off we went. I was in a daze, but not enough not to realise that we weren’t going to St Mary’s, our journey took longer than that, and we actually pulled up outside Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. I learned later that St Mary’s was unable to accept any more patients, so busy was it at that juncture. Desperate to see him, I knew that my Dad had gone to the wrong hospital, but there was nothing I could do about it.
Into A&E and into the arms of a well-oiled and brilliantly reassuring machine. My suit was cut from me, revealing a nasty wound just above my left armpit, where my shirt had actually sliced through my skin, presumably during the tumbling, and I was already displaying signs of bruising on my left shoulder, along with the pains in my side. Off for x-rays and scans………
The prognosis was three nasty cuts, two of which I knew about, the arm was a surprise, shoulder and ankle damage (undetermined at that stage) and damage to my spleen, which they thought might require surgery. Overall, I had suffered an absolute battering, but I would survive. There was no chance of being discharged, so I was told I would be staying in Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, just as my Dad burst in, having finally found me. Emotional? Just a bit.
Having headed for St Mary’s, eventually he was able to ascertain that I was actually in Chelsea and Westminster, and not that his worst fear had come to pass, that some terrible fate had befallen me since his last update! Once we’d both calmed down, he was present for the single moment of humour in the entire day.
Christopher Lee is an actor I will always associate with Count Dracula, vampires and blood, so even I managed a smile when I noted that was the name of the doctor / nurse designated to clean me up and put my cut head back together! Glue for the back, and stitches for the front, sorted, it was time to head for a ward.
Over the coming days, everything would become a little clearer. My colleague sitting opposite me lost three front teeth. That occurred when we were propelled in to one other at the time of impact. That collision not only resulted in the loss of her teeth, it fractured her collar bone and tore all the muscles in my left shoulder. She also suffered a very nasty cut on her leg. It seems likely that the rest of my injuries were from being thrown around, and thanks to bits of wreckage. My other colleague was totally unharmed. Not a scratch. Work that out.
I was nil by mouth and almost taken to surgery on several occasions, but eventually, and thankfully, my spleen settled down, allowing the hospital to concentrate on assessing my other injuries and giving me a chance to get over it all.
Huge bruises appeared, my entire back was purple for a long time, and my ankle did need surgery, though we postponed that until March 2000 when I was feeling stronger.
After ten days I was allowed home to recuperate and was driven there by the two police liaison officers who had been assigned to me as part of the process for in-patients, but not before I put myself through one important visit – I asked them if I could visit the scene of the accident.
It was on Sunday 10 October and was something I felt the need to do. I slowly walked my battered self (I looked like a boxer – albeit a rubbish one!) down to the main entrance of C&W with my Dad, who volunteered to come with me, to where the unmarked police car was waiting and we quickly departed.
As an aside, earlier in the week, the press had hassled the PR woman at C&W so much that I agreed to do one interview for print and one for television (I was one of the few patients well enough in there to do so), just so they would leave us all alone. Sky News got my name wrong…….thanks, for nothing.
Anyway, we drove to Ladbroke Grove and parked close to Sainsbury’s. Investigators and emergency services were still very much in evidence and we made our way from the car to the top of the embankment, from where we could look down over the whole site. I just wanted to see it.
I couldn’t speak. It looked like a bomb site, or a scene from a (real life) disaster movie. There was ‘my’ carriage, still lying on its side.
Dad turned to me and said, “How on earth did you get out of that alive?”
I’m not sure I’ll ever know the answer to that one, and in truth, experience has shown me that trying to do so is a fruitless exercise. It took counselling to work that out though, but there you go.
I’ve never written this story before but it felt like the right time to do so, and it has been a therapeutic process. Bizarrely, doing so was easy, if rather emotional, as the words came pouring out, almost like I was dictating to myself. I’m pretty sure they were lined up, ready to emerge when the time was right.
This piece is dedicated to all those who lost their lives that day. Losing you still feels painful, even though I never met you.
© Gareth Stringer – 2013