THE BLOG

PTSD and the Experience of Witnessing a Helicopter Crash

03/12/2013 13:02 GMT | Updated 01/02/2014 10:59 GMT

It must have been one day in the late 1990s when I switched on TV's 'Peak Practice' to see one of the GPs standing in a field observing a helicopter. As the helicopter grew closer, her face suddenly contorted in response to the sound of a loud, heavy and dense clicking which eventually slowed down to a deep, pendulum-like noise resembling a massive Grandfather clock in need of winding. In response to this I was seized by a terrific spasm that shot from my solar plexus to my throat and I just made it to the bathroom in time.

Rewind the years to winter 1989 and I was a carefree 20 year old darting about the ski resort of Valmorel in the French Alps. On the afternoon of 8 February the resort was teeming with school children enjoying the French half term and it was extremely sunny which made visibility difficult. During the latter part of the afternoon, I remember falling over next to a British guy who I think had hurt his shoulder and for whom an emergency helicopter had been summoned. He seemed in good spirits despite his injuries and was laughing and joking with another skier - although clearly in some pain. Minutes later as I skied down the mountain, there was a sudden and loud clattering noise that sounded like a massive trapped bird. I stopped and turned in astonishment to see the emergency helicopter desperately trying to free itself from the lift cables but only getting more and more entangled. There were terrible screams and a massive group of French school children began running for their lives. The next moment the helicopter rose up like a dying bird as though in its last and tragic grasp for life and then plunged with terrific force into the valley where I had been about to ski. There was an almighty thud which echoed about the surrounding Alps as the helicopter crashed and snapped in two. Hundreds of skiers stood and watched with wide-eyed horror during the dreadful and eerie silence that followed as though nature, without exception, always proffers its own mark of respect following sudden destruction and death. I happened to be the closest skier to the death crash site where tragically four out of five of the passengers lost their lives and I was speechless as I observed the smart, red helicopter looking like a broken and discarded toy lying on its side in the Alpine sunshine. I was additionally horrified to witness what looked like the face of the deceased skier I'd encountered earlier entombed in a cradle, which was being dragged swiftly past me as we began climbing down the mountain.

Terribly ironically the pilot was the famous Roland Fraissinet who was a WWII bomber pilot and pioneered the creation of French Alpine helicopter emergency service. Due to the strength of the sun that day, the extreme exposure of this particular Alpine location as well as the awkward position of the injured skier, it is unsurprising to me that it was concluded that Monsieur Fraissinet's vision was unavoidably obscured which caused him to strike the cable. This crash was clearly, clearly no other than a pure accident and it is so very sad that such a great man's life came to an end in this extremely unfortunate and abrupt way and doing what he loved and did so well.

However, the story of my very mild PTSD illustrates the reality of its neurological imprint and the effects if left untreated. The 'primal aural imprint' is a key characteristic of untreated PTSD which can be a very long term and hidden neurological file - as it was in my case. In fact, I had absolutely no recollection of the loud, desperate and tragic clanging of those struggling blades till I watched the episode of 'Peak Practice' over 10 years later. And I still shudder at the recollection of that noise.

For anyone who is inspired to read more about PTSD, Professor Turnbull who was the Lockerbie Psychiatrist, has written an excellent book called: 'Trauma' which is available on Amazon. I thoroughly recommend it.

This article is dedicated to Roland Fraissinet and his outstanding contribution to Alpine rescue for which he should be very gratefully remembered. And also to those who lost their lives in the Glasgow Police Helicopter Crash this week.