Archive for June, 2010
Myself and my family were caught up in the tragic events of Wednesday 2nd June 2010. The details, and testimonies of some much closer to events are well documented elsewhere, but, while it is still fresh in my mind, I wanted to record what happened to us, possibly, admittedly, as a form of catharsis. It is not a light-hearted read.
My father-in-law lives in Ravenglass, and my wife, Julie, and I visit him 3-4 times a year, usually for a long weekend, but this time for the full Whit week, being our 13-year-old daughters school half-term (and she brought along her best friend). But this time I’d invited my “baby” sister (she’s 36!) and her husband up as well, and also my 69 year-old mother, none of them having ever visiting the Lake District before. It was going to be a family holiday spanning 3 generations, and I was going to enjoy showing my sister & my mum around my favourite locations, such as Wasdale and, inevitably, Eskdale. This had been planned for several months, but was made all the more poignant when my youngest brother died of cancer aged 45 just 2 weeks beforehand: so it turned into a chance to “escape” for awhile and provide some mutual support.
The Mornings Plan
The previous day had been washed out (this is the Lake District after all!), but we all awoke on Wednesday morning to a sun-filled cloudless sky. My father-in-law and his partner had already decided that they were going on their weekly trip to Whitehaven, so they set off bright and early. I took our 3 dogs for their morning constitutional, and noticed when passing the village noticeboard that there was a warning about a local ‘con-man’ on the loose (who was offering to paint portraits of pets but then doing a bad job and demanding payment forcefully). I smiled wryly, living and working as I do in a city, knowing that this is pretty much the extent of crime in the area, and even this was somewhat unusual. I dropped in on my sister and mum to check on plans for the day. Top priority for the week for my mum was the Ravenglass-Eskdale Railway, the “Ratty” as it is fondly known, and so I suggested we combine it with a walk through Boot up to Eel Tarn, so they could take in a little scenery, and then maybe drop down to Doctor Bridge to walk back alongside the Esk. This was A Plan, and warmly received. Back at our place, I discussed the plan, and Julie, who’s been suffering from an especially “bad” back for almost 2 years now, wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of sitting on the bench seats of the train for the 40 minute journey and so we decided that I’d drive the 2 of us, with the dogs, up to the terminus at Boot, and everyone else would go on the train and meet us there.
Even despite our early start to the day, the holiday mood resulted in a somewhat leisurely start, and it was some time before the train party eventually made their way to the station. They phoned in their ETA at Boot (12:10), having decided not to take the waiting train because all of the open carriages were full, and were happy to wait 40 minutes for the next train.
11:30 I went up to the station to wait with them until the train pulled out, and jokingly waved them off with a white handkerchief. 10 minutes later, having loaded the car with 3 dogs, we set off in pursuit of the train, and were immediately surprised at the car park for the station by a policeman! In Ravenglass? He seemed to be directing someone away from the station. I mentioned the con-man poster and we wondered whether he was afoot at the moment. Driving on we reached the junction with the main coast road. A police car was stopped at the junction but didn’t pull off, so I eventually pulled out around it, thinking this a little strange. a mile or so on 2 police cars sped past us, lights flashing and sirens turned up to 11. A mile further on we turned off the main road at Holmrook, heading for Eskdale. Just off the main road a police car was parked up and 3 fully armed and protected police officers were climbing out. They were also wearing helmets, and we remarked at how rare a sight that was. Something was definitely up, and I suspected it was a bit of an overreaction if it was to do with the conman! But of course Sellafield is just a couple of miles away. Or was it just a drill? But this was the Lake District, and we didn’t even consider that we ourselves, or anyone else for that matter was in danger. Looking back, we didn’t even think to turn the radio on hoping for news.
Nothing else happened on the journey to give any clue of what was unfolding around us, except that when the road started to travel parallel to the train line, we saw a train stopped at The Green station some 200 metres or so from the road. We thought this must be the train the family was on, but we were surprised that we’d passed it there, as we were expecting to arrive at Boot pretty much at the same time. No worries, we could wait at Boot, the dogs could play in the steam there. We were relaxed, we were on holiday.
12:05 We arrived at the train terminus at Boot and pulled in to the car park. We were met by one of the station staff who asked us to park up and then to head inside the station cafe as our first action because there was ‘an incident’ taking place (ah yes, all this police presence we noted). Ok, no problem. We parked up and started to unload the dogs from the car – two station staff then came running out of the building shouting “get inside!”. Julie shouted back “I’m disabled, I’m coming as fast as I can but I need my stick!”. I was preoccupied with untangling the dogs, resulting unfortunately in me dropping one of the leads, at which point the attached dog took off to put in a few laps of the car park before coming back to heel. And then we rushed into the café that forms the ground floor of the little station terminus.
Once inside, we found that the occupants of the last train that had come up the line were also ensconced in the building, and we started talking to people, especially the station cafe staff, who had suddenly found themselves elevated to the responsibility of keeping the 50 or so people in the building safe. “There’s someone running around outside waving a gun” was the first bit of information leading us to start to realise the situation unravelling. Time passed, and rumours abounded. I’m not quite sure how, given that Eskdale has no mobile coverage at any time anyway. And we were desperate to find out what was happening down the line with the train. The station staff would have had some way of communicating down the line, perhaps 2-way radio, perhaps a landline, but as far as I could tell that was the only communications route open. Then someone got word of shootings having taken place in Whitehaven, and that the perpetrator was heading our way. The mood darkened somewhat. Some went quiet. I spotted a couple quietly holding hands across a table, knuckles white. Small children, perhaps sensing this change of mood suddenly started crying. At one point a woman brought her children over and asked if they could pet the dogs. “Of course” I smiled, but finding myself looking up into the unmistakable face of fear. We of course were desperate for news, but primarily about our daughter and my family on the train, with scant regard for ourselves. For some reason (that remains unclear) a rumour spread that there were 2 shooters, one of which had been shot on the beach at Seascale. That’s next to Sellafield, I thought. Was there a link? A woman (from London) was speculating that it was an armed gang on the run as part of a bungled burglary or something drugs related.
More news came through, we discovered that a relative of one of the station workers was the landlord of a pub in Boot and he’d been shot. No news of severity. Of course, she was distraught, but couldn’t leave the building, even though he would have been less than a mile away. That’s the pub we’d intended to have lunch at, we said (we learned later, with some relief, that he’d ‘only’ been wounded, we believe shot in the arm).
Increasing numbers of helicopters were now going overhead at tree level, some circling. More and more police cars could be seen heading up the road past us in the direction of Hardknott Pass. A police car was parked across the entrance to our car park. An announcement was made over the station intercomm “Could everyone move away from the windows please”. We obliged. I suggested to the staff member ushering us that perhaps the entrance door should be locked? “Good idea”, she said. A couple of minutes later a helicopter was stationary above the building and an armed policeman could be seen crouching, moving slowly outside, peering under and around the cars in the car park. “They don’t know where this guy is” was the thought uppermost in my mind, and which I found most troubling. Another public announcement: “Could everyone please move to the corner under the stairs furthest from the windows”. For these instructions to be coming out, the conclusion we drew was that inevitably the risk was coming from the standpoint of random shootings. Was there safety in numbers? Or were we just an easier target? Even though we were in a position where we couldn’t even see windows directly any more, the fear was penetrating our consciousness and we felt exposed. I’ve never experienced that before, it was a fear of the unknown, and the less rational moments almost contained an element of inevitability. I tried to shake myself out of it by talking to Julie, and then taking the dogs around the children in our huddle for some distracting petting and other amusement. I heard people refer to me as “the dog man”!
But then we received word from station staff that the trains out on the track had been turned around and had gone back to Ravenglass. Such a relief. Julie smiled.
2 armed policemen approached the front door and were let in. They announced that “they’d got the guy”. Stuttering applause rang out. For some reason, I asked one of them if he was ok. He said “this is big – there’s a trail of bodies from Whitehaven to here”, and that was the first confirmation of the extent of this calamity. We were told to remain inside for 5 minutes, presumably while the police confirmed or tidied up whatever it was that they needed to. (Reports since say that the body was found at 13:30).
13:43 I took a photo of one of our armed police guards. Several other people did: kids were trying to get a picture of themselves with him – he retorted “if any of these pictures appear on Facebook I’ll be demanding royalties!”. I later posted it on Twitter. And then we were freed! We thanked the station staff for looking after us.
14:00 Putting the dogs in the car, I then saw an RAF Rescue Helicopter landing in the field opposite the station, so I went to snap a quick photo of the Sea King helicopter, until I noticed the ambulances coming down from Boot and the Hardknott Pass road, presumably ferrying the injured to be air-lifted out.
I drove back down to Ravenglass as quickly as is possible on such narrow winding roads. However, even when we were back in mobile signal coverage, we could not make calls connect, texts wouldn’t go through, posts to Twitter would be queued. But just as we were pulling into Ravenglass, we managed to connect to my sister, who reassured us that everyone was safe, including father-in-law, and that they’d just ordered some food at the Ratty Arms, not having eaten all day. Such a relief for us of course, and so wonderful to see them all again, and all safe and sound. Then was one of the best-tasting pints I’ve ever had!
So we swapped stories. They’d noticed that the train had been stopped at The Green for what seemed an unusually long period of time. My sister & brother-in-law had until recently spent many years living on the Isle of Dogs and working in the City of London, and so said that when the police cars had been hurtling by, and even when armed police started positioning themselves on the platform and on the bridge over the line, and across the access road, that they still didn’t associate it with something out of the ordinary! For them, in London, it hadn’t been!
By this time, the identity of Derrick Bird had been published, and we overheard someone in the Ratty saying they knew who he was. Maybe, maybe not. Our lasting memory from that time will be one of disbelief. How could that have happened in such a wonderfully tranquil part of the world. We were deeply saddened, but probably also at that moment were glad to be alive.
Access to Twitter over the mobile network was painful for a few hours, but I persisted, and managed to upload the photos eventually, as well as various other tweets. And had more beer while waiting. We spent a lot of time that evening on the phone to friends and family who were checking up on us.
That evening, while fighting with an intermittent mobile signal, the BBC, ITN and independent news/photo agencies tried to contact me via Twitter. I managed to get my mobile number to the BBC and the following morning went through a phone interview with them, essentially going over what I’ve documented here. They asked me to go up to Whitehaven to give an interview, but I declined, for 2 main reasons: as a family, we were on holiday, for just a brief week, and I didn’t want them being dragged around in tow for a media circus, and secondly, in the clear light of day, I thought there must be people out there with much more pertinent stories to tell.
I was later pointed to a page on the Telegraph web site, quoting my tweets, and also usefully informing people about what Twitter is and how it’s used – but it completely missed the point that the same lack of mobile signal that stopped us contacting each other, also stopped me tweeting!
We picked up a copy of the Whitehaven News later, and were somewhat astonished when our daughter devoured every word. As far as I’m aware, she’d never before read a newspaper.
Details of course started to become clearer and fleshed out. We learned that Bird killed himself less than half a mile from where we were incarcerated, and his flight on foot in the area of Boot would have brought him into range of the station (although a lack of cover on foot would have made that task very difficult). When contacting family back home, we learned that our future daughter-in-law (June 2011) is a cousin (although admittedly there’s been no contact for quite some time) of the fiancée of the estate agent who was killed, so the ripple of effect had even reached across to the East Midlands.
We repeated the trip 2 days later, and in fact had a lovely day out in the hills. At the end of the day, I went into the station building, to see if any of Wednesdays staff were around, but they weren’t. I hope they’re ok. My father-in-laws partner had gone to Egremont, and returned with tales of the town being covered in flower tributes, as she learned from others were Whitehaven and Seascale.
I’ve seen questions being raised in the media and on Twitter basically around the police response times in this incident, and how he wasn’t stopped earlier. I have absolutely no doubt that anyone making such suggestions lives in a metropolitan area (and of the London-based media) – have they ever been to Cumbria?? The most sparcely populated county in England, with a police force no doubt to match. It’s sparcely populated because most of the county is mountains and lakes. These are true genuine mountains, not the rolling hills of the South Downs, with the area criss-crossed with mainly single-track walled-in roads.
Furthermore, it became evident, from our incarceration and the extent of protection being given to my familys train out on the tracks, and no doubt in other areas, that the police had been paying particular attention to the safety of large gatherings of people, by ensuring maintained protection. This had to be done with armed police, who were therefore by necessity, withdrawn from the chase, which could thereby have been hampered. So, my question to the media interested in this angle, in their view, should the police have concentrated more on the chase, at the expense of ensuring that large groups of people could not be sprayed with gunfire. Someone had to make this type of instant decision. With lives at stake, who among us would relish having to make that sort of decision. I would be very surprised if the inevitable inquest into this tragedy will find that things could have been handled differently in some way or other, that’s the nature of these things, but I would be extremely surprised, if not shocked, if it was decided that the police actions and response was poor. I do object to the usual media approach of demands for hasty answers though.
My knee will most certainly not be jerking in the area of the “gun debate”. Although the representative of the pro-gun lobby who was wheeled in for comment on the BBC news made a somewhat poor case by claiming that essentially the only effect that banning guns would have is that we (apparently) wouldn’t be able to host the Olympics and it would damage some of our heritage!
Before that day I had been surprised by how much conversation there had been about the school bus crash over the other side of the Lakes at Keswick some 10 or so days earlier. Given that, I can only assume that this tragedy, on such a larger and wider scale, is going to stay with this community for at least a generation. This is not the rhetoric of the media or a mealy-mouthed politician, I truly believe this will have a profound effect on a community that quite frankly does not deserve it. If anyone reading this has intentions of visiting the Lakes, and perhaps is harbouring second thoughts of this as a result of this tragedy, then please stop and think for a moment. The county is still the most beautiful and stunning in England. The people of Cumbria are still as friendly and good-natured as you’d find anywhere. Continuing to visit will be a way to show your support.
Us? Well, we’re among the lucky ones. None of us were harmed. We’re alive. Being alive is Good. There’s maybe a resolve to cherish life more than we do (although that is difficult with our recent, and ongoing, histories of injuries and illness). I hope the feeling lasts.
The Cumbria Police page about the incident
The Whitehaven News continues to provide coverage
- An account of the incident from the other end of the railway
- A Cumbrian cartoonists view
- “I don’t wanna talk about it”: A view of the male of the species with reference to this tragedy