“Lest we forget”
This is a story that few will know outside the small group within Scottish Mountain Rescue. I still feel it needs retelling and how we should never take the Mountain Rescue Teams or SAR Helicopters for granted and how easily it can all go wrong.
1987 Harry Lawrie Killin MRT “Lest we forget”
In memory of Harry Lawrie BEM Team Leader Killin Mountain Rescue Team.
30 years ago on the first of February 1987 a Wessex Helicopter from RAF Leuchars crashed on Ben More near Crainlarich this is part of the story.
The weather on that day the 1 st of February was wonderful, blue skies and rock hard snow meant a great weekend for climbing and mountaineering. We knew there would be plenty of callouts that weekend but the weather was so perfect that the helicopters would be able to cope with most incidents or so we thought. I was with the RAF Leuchars Mountain Rescue Team staying at Bridge of Orchy Village Hall over that weekend. We had climbed on that incredible mountain Beinn Ullaidh, the ice was wonderful and most of the rest of the team spent the weekend there or on some of the classic ice climbs or winter mountaineering on these great hills. As usual we pulled out after tea for the drive back to Leuchars tired on the Sunday night for the two hour drive home. The Wessex which had been busy all day “buzzed” our convoy as we drove down the road. It said over the radio that “Rescue 134” was heading for an incident on Ben More a climber had fallen and Killin Mountain Rescue were out looking and they may need some assistance. We watched the helicopter stop and pick up some of the Killin Team and then head for Ben More!
At RAF Leuchars we knew all the helicopter crews and even trained many of them in winter skills, they were all great friends, together we were a team. It was a great relationship there was no rank just a real bunch of people who loved SAR. The winch man that day was also on the Leuchars Mountain Rescue Team he was Mick Anderson one of the most experienced in the RAF. What happened next was surreal as we watched the helicopter climb up the hill to the crags just before the summit ridge. Night was falling and we watched the huge searchlights of the helicopter light up the cliffs and reflect off the snow. Then as if in a dream, there was a flash and the Wessex hit the hill, it was awful. The Team Leader that day of Leuchars MRT was Don Shanks, “Mr unflappable” and he told us over the radios in our wagons as we were driving past to get to the farm below Ben More, get the team sorted while he called the Rescue Centre. Communications were poor in these days; no mobile phones, no GPS and the radios were red hot. We had a great friend in the village Elma Scott one of the Leuchars team’s mothers and Don called the Rescue Centre from her house explaining what had occurred and another helicopter was launched to assist. The Wessex I think had got out a Mayday message just before it crashed. Things went so quickly and another helicopter was soon on the way to assist. By this time we were ready to go on the hill and could see the smoke and fire on the hill. Killin had been already searching the hill looking for a missing walker when the aircraft had picked up Harry( the Team Leader of Killin and Ian another Killin team member both were local Policemen) from Base. They were taken high up the mountain to where the casualty was last seen and were getting out the helicopter which was on very steep ground when it hit the hill. The next thing they knew the helicopter was crashing down the hill towards the Killin Team who were searching for the climber. The next few minutes must have been horrendous, as after the helicopter stopped sliding down the hill after it stopped then went on fire, it was a very dangerous place to be. The crew and injured were dragged free by the Killin team members who had just missed being hit by pieces of aircraft. It was pandemonium and when things cleared Harry had been killed and Ian and Mick the winch man severely injured. There were some heroes that night, the Killin boys rushed into the stricken aircraft and dragged the injured out. Words cannot explain their actions. No training on earth can get you ready for such an event and it is still an untold tale. Several of the Killin Team was awarded The Queen medal for their bravery after the tragedy. Meanwhile our fast party was up the hill in 20 minutes incredible effort and assisted Killin, those who were there will never appreciate how they coped; they were all so professional in amongst such tragedy. There was no inter team problems all worked together despite of the circumstances and the confusion, the radios were crazy for a while. The helicopter a RAF Sea King took both casualties to hospital and Killin and the Lechars Team helped carried Harry off the hill. That would be the hardest part of the night and so sad for all of them.
I was told to stay at Base as there was so much going on and Don told me to stay it was full on. I was raging at the time but it was the correct thing to do. It was crazy and I learned so much that night about the pressures of being a team leader which stood me in great stead in the years to come. The RAF helicopter that crashed had a new senior officer on board the new Oc Ops at Leuchars who had been dropped off at the farm, thankfully before the crash. He was there throughout and was completely amazed by how all coped in such a tragedy and it must have been so difficult for him. As Killin MRT approached with Harry at the end of the journey of the hill, some idiots from the press tried to take a photo of the scene, they were quickly stopped by a few of us, nearly physically!Lomond MRT were also there and it got pretty hectic at the control point as more press arrived this was big news and huge lessons were learned that night. Harry’s wife was in the Killin Control caravan during the incident hat a tragedy for her and the family in the days and years ahead.
That night was hellish hard and we still had to find the casualty who had fallen earlier, few slept. It was a first light search and I wondered “how many Killin Team would be available there for the search”. I was given the job of organising the search below the steep cliffs near the summit. The Killin team turned up to a man that morning, an incredible effort and we line searched with of over 40 rescuers each in there own thoughts. We found the casualty very quickly after a few hours search, unfortunately she was sadly another fatality. It was hard to do but we soon had the casualty on the stretcher and carried her off. We all took turns there was little chatter and the grief was there in us all. Killin’s efforts that night and the next few days will remain with me forever. I made many friends during the days that followed that have lasted to this day. I was at the crash site for over a week with the Board of Enquiry. It was a difficult time but this is what we did and you put things on hold and got on with it. The AIB had a job to do and the ground was serious, good steep snow and ice with inexperienced engineers in the winter mountains where a slip could give a serious injury. They knew their job though and found all they needed to and the investigation got completed, they said that aircrew fatigue was a big part of the accident. The helicopter had done several incidents that day and hardly ever stopped for a break. This was a lesson to us all for the future; you must try and get a break no matter what happens. It was became normal flying up to the crash site every day in another Wessex but we had great faith in the crews and the aircraft and we had a job to do. We built a bond with the investigators built on mutual trust in the short daylight hours we had as most days we walked off at the end of a day of intense concentration.
I wrote about this incident on my blog several times and Ian who was badly injured in the crash is still a great friend and we golf together for a week annually. He still bares the scars of that night and we felt I should tell the tale as a lot have forgotten about Harry. As I re write this about what I remembered about that night and the efforts of those involved, it was hard but worth doing in my eyes. Every time I pass the great bulk of Ben More I remember that night all those years ago.
Harry’s family got in touch after my blog a few years ago and were amazed when they heard this partof story much of it for the first time. Yet this is only a small part of the story, The Killin Mountain Rescue Team were and still are an incredible bunch of people and I hope they will tell the tale of that night on Ben More many years ago. It hugely affected my life and many others and I learned many lessons from it. A few years later I was at Lockerbie and many of things I learned over this sad incident are worth passing on for the future. As the years move on sadly Mick Anderson the helicopter winch -man who was badly injured has passed away and myself Bill Gault and Johnnie Macleod cleared his house, it was full of memories and none stronger than that day on Ben More. The year’s role on but every year a band of Killin MRT go to Harry’s memorial on the hill Ben Ledi just above Callender and pay their respects. One day I hope to join them.
When we go out in the mountains or on rescues we forget those who wait and worry about us, we must not forget what they go through for us! Few realise how much they worry about us and our safe return. Please share this story it is a sad tale but one of incredible dedication by a real band of unassuming people who make this small country such a great place to live in. If you are in a Rescue Team and something like this happened how would your Team cope, have you discussed it? Never take what the SAR Helicopters do for granted, sadly accidents can happen.
This small part of the story is dedicated to Harry Laurie’s family and the Killin Mountain Rescue Team and the families who sit and wait.
A quote from a wife of one of Scotland’s busiest teams who was involved in Mountain Rescue for 40 years.
“I never slept till he and the team were off the hill safely” Be safe out there all those who enjoy and love these wild places and let’s never forget those like Harry who gave so much.
Huge thanks to the RAF Leuchars MRT who were incredible that night and the days that occurred after on the recovery and at the crash site for nearly a week. Thank you all.
Heavy Whalley 1 Feb 2017