Right Place, Right Time?
I’ve had more than my share of dealing with emergencies. I’m not talking about the ‘losing your car keys’ or ‘dropping the mobile down the loo’ kind of emergency; I’m talking life and death here. I’m talking about being an ordinary person minding my own business, when ‘WHAM’. It was such a regular occurrence that I even got a bit ‘why me’ about it and decided not to react.
The first time it happens I’m getting a lift in a truck on a Bavarian autobahn. A VW passes us as we move onto a viaduct and, caught by a side wind, it somersaults right in front of us. I jump down. First one there. The door handle comes away in my hand, but the old couple inside crawl through a window and walk away from the upturned Beetle without a scratch.
Then it is Christmas in London and the man who falls out of a window. Right in front of me, there he is, writhing at my feet. What has this folded lunatic been doing? Cleaning his windows by standing on the outside ledge. In the winter. In his slippers. He wants to get up. “Stay put mate,” I say “falling that far and landing on your feet: a broken pelvis would be a safe bet.” The police dribble up but don’t seem to know what to do, so I organise warmth and rescue, and protect him from the falling snow with umbrellas redeployed from a nearby pub garden. He has a broken pelvis: six weeks in hospital. Happy New Year.
Then a friend, playing a game at college, trips over and bangs his head. It’s quite a few seconds before we realise that his tremors aren’t an elaborate act. He’s been chewing gum and it’s lodged in his windpipe. I do the wrong thing in hooking it out with my finger, but it works and he survives.
A herd of black cows decide to walk across a dual carriageway in Devon. In the night. That’s interesting, if chaotic. How I don’t hit one I’ll never know, but others aren’t so lucky. Trying to get them off the road I’m accused of being the errant cowherd; must be my beard and woolly hat.
My mother-in-law collapses in her new flat. It’s so new that the ambulance service can’t understand the path layout. It takes them half an hour to find us, just me and her; half an hour of solo cpr. She dies. Is it me?
Two immediate neighbours have accidents. On one side there’s Hugh. He falls two and a half floors from his roof when a ladder breaks; the broken end goes right through his arm. That’s just a mad dash to A&E. He’s lucky, apart from them picking splinters out of him for months afterwards, there is no lasting damage. On the other side there is Guy. Aneurysm. More cpr, and another death. Now I’m getting paranoid.
So, living by the sea, I see a yacht. Its lurching motion suggests that it might be in trouble but I’m just watching. It might be just novices; they’ll have radio; somebody else must be seeing this. I’m still just watching as it slowly disappears behind another headland. There are no flares, no other obvious distress signals, so I think no more about it. Until, on Monday, morning I see the lifeboat hurrying by. The yacht has sunk, leaving the crew clinging to a cliff until one of them bravely swims to raise the alarm. They have no flares, no radio and only I see it. I see this incident unfold and ignore it, with near disastrous results. All saved, but no thanks to me. Days later the Maritime and Coastguard Agency advertise for auxiliary staff and I respond.
The job entails being ‘on watch’ at the Coastguard Station: a trembling wooden shed on top of the cliffs overlooking the harbour entrance. My role is to assist the regular Coastguard officers by manning telephones, doing clerical work and, most importantly, monitoring the radio and recording what I hear in a log-book. For this duty I train as a Search and Rescue Radio Operator. We auxiliaries come from all walks of life. Some are housewives, some are unemployed, among us are a couple of crofters, a poet, a teacher, a solicitor and an architect.
I have a full time job so I only take shifts at weekends or in the evenings. The duty rosters are arranged in 4 shifts of 6 hours. The regular Coastguards work rolling shifts, six hours on and twelve hours off, which means that every successive period of duty for them begins at a different time of day (or night). With a little manipulation, it’s possible to share a watch with someone interesting. Sitting for hours on end, sometimes in a dark howling gale, and with little or no radio traffic to hear, it’s really important to share a watch with someone with something to say. Anything to say. The worst watches are those when the regular officer falls asleep; to be fair, the terrible rolling shifts play havoc with their sleep patterns. I find myself in control of the whole of the west-coast network, when the Greenock control centre is evacuated due to a bomb scare. “We have Bikini State Red,” the voice on the phone says, “you have control.” I think we’re at war and the regular officer is asleep!
Now I’m involved in another rescue. It is December and I come on watch just as the Captain of 100,000 tons of oil tanker, the ‘Maersk Angus’, radios about a potential emergency. His ship, empty and en-route from Milford Haven to Dundee, has lost engine power and is drifting off the north-west coast. Not in immediate danger, he has not broadcast a ‘Mayday’ (indeed declines the offer of a nearby tug), but I know that very large ships drift at surprising speed, in effect sailing due to the action of the wind on their enormous bulk. I am good at navigation and chart work so I go to the chart table and work out the predicted drift. It is not good news: if unchecked there is a real risk that ‘Maersk Angus’ will run aground on St.Kilda. There is an obvious risk to the lives of the 32 crew aboard, but that is not all. Although empty of cargo, the ship carries 4000 tons of oil for its massive engines. Any spill of that will be devastating to the unique wildlife of those islands. Perhaps the master of the ‘Maersk Angus’ is acting under the instructions of his owners to avoid a salvage claim by not accepting help, except from another ship of the same company? The Maersk company dispatches its own tugs, the ‘Maersk Ranger’ and the ‘Maersk Retriever’, from Aberdeen and Peterhead, but they are on the wrong side of the wild Pentland Firth.
The master steadfastly declines assistance until it is beyond doubt that help is not coming in time: he concedes that his crew are at risk and asks for a helicopter to lift them off. As the duty radio operator I am the link between the Coastguard and the two Sea-King helicopters that are scrambled. On television people are regularly scripted to say “Over and Out” – which means “I expect a reply, but I’m not listening”. I am trained; my radio procedure is clear and concise. The helicopter pilots are better, masters of brevity. Acknowledging messages with one word, they make me feel clumsy. Now, hovering over the stricken ship, they maintain radio silence, to allow the pilot to concentrate. Imagine the tension in the watch room. We are listening, straining intently, at the blank hiss from the radio set mingling with the shrieking gale, wondering what is going on out in the heaving darkness of the Atlantic. The rescue is successful and the ship is taken in tow by a Maersk tug, but not until it has drifted past Stac an Armin, an outlier of the main St. Kilda island Hirta, missing by just 2km – about 8 ship lengths. I am so carried away by the excitement, and wide awake with adrenalin, that I overshoot my change of watch and am very late home.
It doesn’t happen so often now. The last time? Maybe it’s that car crash on the A9: first on scene again. No, it’s that small plane that’s missing. I’m the last one to see it before it crashes. Right place, right time? Next time? I don’t know, but I do know that I won’t turn my back. It seems that events choose me, not the other way around.
BBC TV Competition