This is the second part of the above incident.
When you arrive at such a scene of incredible trauma and destruction it is amazing how you cope. This was the job the RAF Mountain Rescue train for an unfortunately this is what were paid to do. Our task is to rescue and recover civilian and military aircraft crews and passengers. Six of us in were in the fast party that had arrived by Sea King helicopter had huge experience in aircraft crash sites. After the initial survey round the very dangerous crash site and with all the 29 on board accounted for we have to ensure that all the evidence at the crash site is not touched or moved. This means that all the casualties stay in place and await the Police and Air Investigation Board arrive. (AIB) The local Police, Coastguard / Fire and Ambulance were already on scene and were glad of our experience.
We had to explain how dangerous the crash site was with fire, smoke, trauma and other items like sharp wreckage making it very easy to explain and keep the site safe and secure. This is never easy to do as there always seem especially in those days of we must have a look.
Jim the Team Leader was busy speaking to our powers that be by phone and we found out that the rest of the Team from RAF Leuchars and RAF Kinloss were coming by road a long 3- 4 hour journey for Leuchars and longer from Kinloss. The Mull road is very tight single lane for the last 12 k and proved tricky for the emergency services. That was handy as the media were kept away. When we arrived we had already worked out we would be on our own for a while. By now after a couple of hours the top brass from the Police and Fire had arrived and set up Operation Controls etc.
My task was to brief them and also keep the integrity of the Crash site. It is also so important despite who ever arrives few will have seen such a tragedy. I can only remind people that this is place of death, destruction and danger and in my experience need to keep those who see this horror at a minimum.
I had a few heavy discussions on this point as there is “a must see what has happened attitude” by some that many lived to regret.
In the end they were all advised and we did keep the site as safe as possible. The fire service was there for most of the night as the peat and smoke keep burning. The wreck smouldered for days. It was surreal. It is amazing the things you remember and we needed a drink it was hard to get some as the area was contaminated by fuel. We were hot and tired by the time some of the team arrived to help us we were on our own for over 6 hours. Its amazing that somehow the WRVS or locals arrived and they were the angels looking after us and giving some normality.
We took round a few of the key players showed them the crash site and had a well – earned break. If you can have such a thing. Then a local minster arrived and wanted to visit the site and say a few words. It was late and dark by now making this a place of great sadness. The mist was still coming and going and the place smelt of fuel and danger.
It was tricky as the casualties were still in place as the Police and AIB investigation would be done mostly done next day . It was with a group of us that the minster said a few words and left he was visibly shaken by what he had seen. We had covered the casualties when our kit arrived up and it was a long night.
The site is fairly remote so access was controlled by the Police along the single track road. The weather had cleared and a few Military and other experts arrived but work on the site would not start till the next day.
Next day the main investigation started they would be there for weeks and we left them to it after showing them around the scene. They have a difficult job to do but they have to do it. After they were finished the initial work the casualties were all removed a harrowing task done by our pals from RAF Leuchars MRT and a few others. This was down with great dignity and reverence.
“This is a part that few realise is never easy but has to be done with reverence and great care. Every one of those poor souls killed is a tragic life a family has lost a loved one and devastation for all concerned. Some of us knew some of the crew”
Even next day smoke was still about, the air stank of aircraft fuel and burnt heather and of course all the wreckage was still in place. We left the Crash guard of military personnel to look after the site and headed back to RAF Machrihanish for the night. Our clothes stank of fuel and burning that shower was great as was a bed for the night and good food. People ask how do you cope, you are in the zone and do what you have to.
We had a meal we were starving and then all managed to have a night together both teams and a few drinks to unwind. We were now a bit better prepared for such tragedy after Lockerbie in 1988 and the Harris Crash in 1990 and it was good for the teams to unwind together.
Next day we drove back to our camps. It was a long drive in great weather through familiar scenery Glencoe and our familiar stomping grounds back to our home at RAF Kinloss in Morayshire. It was a quite trip home for the teams and back to family, friends and work. Sadly few who would have little idea of what we has seen and done on the Mull Of Kintyre. Some of the team got asked if the enjoyed their days off by the odd Boss. They hadh no clue what they had seen or done. In the military you normally have to accept this but I always when I found out even at my level put them right no matter what rank they were.
I have written this piece just to tell a small piece of the work of the RAF Mountain Rescue Teams and other emergency services. Many can forget that this was a terrible tragedy and 29 souls lost their lives. Families were and still are devastated by the loss and it took over 20 years for me to visit the site to pay my respects.
This like other incidents and sadly I have been to many have affected me and others. I have learned to cope but the memories will be with me for life. We have moved on since 1994 learned so much but what a group of people I was with.
Many helped me at the time but in these days few knew I was struggling. “Big boys and girls did not talk then”.Yet you try to do your job and you do. It’s the month’s years later when it all comes back. Little things trigger it and its part of my life.
There was a small private ceremony this weekend at the Mull I doubt if any of the Rescue Teams will be present. I visited the Mull a few years ago for the first time. It was a powerful visit for me and helped me. The site has no wreckage it’s all gone but yet I see at times I saw the fires and the sadness of that day. Today and as always my thoughts are with the families and relatives of those who died.
These are some comments I received after I wrote about this before and I thank you for them, they help a lot.
“My husband was on board, one of the crew. It must have been terrible, but oddly I am reading this intently and looking forward to the next instalment. I am amazed at how this accident has touched so many and take great comfort in knowing that I am not alone in remembering that day.
Comment “20 years!! I was part of the Campbeltown lifeboat crew (RNLI) that was requested to go down to “The Mull” and form a search party. The lifeboat “Walter and Margaret Couper” had been launched on an earlier shout as the coastguard assumed the chinook was in the sea below, how wrong we’re they? We returned to station and got sent down to search the area.
A local doctor even stopped our land rover en route and suggested that anyone with a weak mind should return to Campbeltown with him as it wasn’t pleasant, I wish I had.
What a sad, eerie, haunting scene.”
I’ll never forget it, my thoughts and prayers go out to the families on this anniversary x DCI can remember it so well, I was and still am in the lifeboat in Campbeltown we missed the boat that night and we carried on in cars to the Mull of Kintyre to see if we could help and we had seen everything not a nice thing to see but it was our job”
Heavy Whalley June 2019
This piece is dedicated to crew and passengers of Helicopter ZD576 on the Mull of Kintyre.
I did a piece for Natural Geographic a few years ago as part of their “Seconds to Disaster film” the money I was paid went to Mountain Rescue. It shows the initial part we played and is worth a look.
Comment from Mark
“Brutally sad days spent seeing and doing things you shouldn’t have to so.
Thanks to the people of Cambletown who helped with the stress counselling.”