"Can you go straight out to an accident" said the skipper as I walked in the door at twenty-to-five clutching my lunch and a box of reduced price Asda cookies to share with the shift. I had, for once, had time to grab a treat (on the way to work) for us to munch on during parade but wasn't going to be able to join them to eat it.
I threw the cookies at one of the others in the locker room, threw on my body armour and belt, grabbed my radio and spray from their lockers and dragged my kit bag out to the car. It was about a 10 minute drive to the scene, but this was only because I was lucky enough to have the local knowledge to decipher the vague location details given to me by the control room or it would have taken much longer. Having lived and worked in the area for 10 years, there wasn't much of the patch I didn't know. If one of the newer members of the shift had been sent we would probably have had to go searching for them as well as dealing with the crash!
I hit the big red button and made my way through the maze of "unnamed road"s showing on the Sat Nav. Not far from where I expected it to be I came across the scene. Two cars had collided head-on and one car still had the driver in it. The two occupants of the other car were uninjured barring the usual minor grazes from air-bag deployments. I called in the update and then went to see what I could do to help the trapped driver of the first car.
His name was Dave.
His window was missing (I assume shattered in the impact) and he was, as far as I could tell, uninjured. He was on his phone to his wife or girlfriend (I don't know which) telling her about the accident and reassuring her that he was fine. Dave was trapped in the car, but only because the dashboard and steering wheel had moved backwards on impact and had pinned him into the driver's seat. The front doors on both sides of the car were deformed and were going to need to be forced open by the fire brigade.
I called the control room again and confirmed that there was an ambulance and a fire tender on the way. They were, but didn't know exactly where we were so I told Dave he would have to wait a few minutes. He joked that he might as well phone the insurance company as he "couldn't exactly go anywhere" at the moment. I offered to try to force his door with a crowbar, but he told me it was fine and that he would wait for the firemen to give his car a makeover. "I've always wanted a convertible" he said. We chatted for a few minutes and I took his details down in my pocket-book for the copious forms that I knew awaited me when I finished. Dave said he would buy me a pint in the local pub if he saw me in there and I replied that he should keep the money for the re-spray on his car!
It was at that point that I noticed a smell. It was faint at first, but soon got stronger. I thought it might be the residual smell of an airbag or of hot rubber from skidding tyres. It wasn't.
There was a wisp of smoke from the bonnet vent on the driver's side of the car. I saw Dave's eyes widen a little - he had seen it too. I reassured him by saying it was probably just steam from the coolant bottle or radiator. I told him I would be straight back and went for the extinguisher in the boot of my car "just in case".
I was only away 20 seconds or so, but by the time I got back, the smoke had become darker and more noticeable. Dave told me that he had reconsidered my offer of trying to get his door open. I grabbed the crowbar and set about the driver's door with a fair degree of urgency. It was no good....I was never going to get it open.
"Oh shit!" he said. I looked round and saw the smallest of flames flickering through the gaps in the bonnet vent. I dropped the crowbar and grabbed the extinguisher. I shoved the nozzle toward the vent and let off a blast of powder. I moved it to a small gap at the side of the bonnet where it had folded up slightly and gave it another squirt. A cloud of powder rose into the air, and I had to step back to avoid breathing too much in. It's not good for your lungs I am sure.
The fog cleared and the flames returned.
I tried again with a bigger blast this time. Now wishing I had a bigger extinguisher. It had an effect for a few moments, but then things just went straight back to where they were before. The bonnet was starting to blacken around the vent, and the paint was starting to bubble as the heat increased. I emptied the remainder of the extinguisher down through the vent but still the heat and smoke continued to build.
I called the control room, desperate to know how far away the fire service were. I told them that the car was now smoking and that I needed more help at the scene. I could now hear sirens in the distance, Dave could hear them too. I saw his face change...becoming a little more relaxed as he heard his rescuers approaching. "Thank f**k for that" he said, "I thought I was gonna be toast for a minute!".
Regardless, I was still going to try to get him out if I could. I grabbed a seatbelt cutter, and hacked his belt off at the shoulder. I tried to reach down inside the car to get to the recline cog at the bottom of the seat. The plastic interior trim had bent out of shape and blocked my hand from getting to it. I could touch one or two teeth with a fingertip, but could not get anywhere near enough power behind it to turn it. I suspect it was pinned in place anyway. The sirens got louder.
I tried the back doors of the car to see if I could get inside and pull the seat back from there. It was impossible...no matter how hard I pulled, it was not moving an inch.
I caught a flash of blue lights out of the corner of my eye. I turned and gasped as I saw that it was an ambulance not a fire engine. I am pretty sure I said something unprintable and Dave knew exactly what I was thinking. I sprinted to the ambulance and got their extinguisher too. It was bigger than mine, but two minutes later it was gone, and the fire was still building. Flames were now coming out from the sides of the bonnet as well as through the vent, and Dave said he could feel the heat on his feet.
The driver of the other car joined me and the paramedic in trying to pull the door open. I managed to pull the top of the door away from the roof and get my hands down inside it, but the main panel of the door still refused to yield. Dave was getting desperate. He was trying to distract himself by writing a text message to someone. I don't know what it said, but it was short. He was trying to get out from under the steering-wheel, but it was right across his hips and he just couldn't get free.
The fire continued to grow under the bonnet, and I could see smoke coming from under the wheel arches. It was soon replaced by flames. Dave was shouting now...he was thrashing around in the hope that some specific movement might miraculously change his situation.
I was desperate too. I took him by the arm and tried to pull him free. Dave screamed out in pain. I apologised for hurting him, but soon realised that it wasn't me that was to blame. The fire was starting to make the heat in the foot-well unbearable as it broke through from the engine bay. This was it...make or break time. We tried everything from all sides and using every ounce of strength we had. The windscreen shattered with the heat and the paramedic and other driver backed away at the bang. It was going to be down to me from now on...
Dave was looking straight at me. I could see in his eyes that he was in pain, and was so, so scared. He asked me again to help him, and I continued to try for what seemed like hours, although I am sure it was only minutes. I saw smoke starting to pour out from around the dashboard and went to the rear seat again to give it another final try. My body armour was left on the road as I needed every inch of space to put my entire body behind the effort. Nothing worked.
I came back to the driver's door, trying to pull the door open with my hands again. The bodywork on the car was now burning my palms as I touched it. Dave was screaming in pain....screaming at me for help....screaming at me to save him. I kept telling him I was sorry. I knew what was going to happen...and he knew it too. I was driven back by the heat as the flames moved from the engine bay to the inside of the car.
He looked straight at me through the smoke....mouthing words that had no sound...and then there was silence.
Two, maybe three minutes later the first fire appliance arrived and the crew sprung straight into action. It was too late though and the silence from the car continued to echo through my mind. I had to leave.
Another Police vehicle arrived behind the fire appliance and I walked over to them, pulling on my body armour again as I did so. A road closure was needed at the end of the road as this was now going to be a long job. I volunteered to take that on and the officers in the car agreed. They didn't know what had just happened and I didn't want to have to describe it to them. I simply said "It's a fatal" and wandered off down the country lane to the junction about 600 yards away.
I stood there for an hour or so. The closed road cuts off a corner between two larger roads and is a bit of a rat run. As a result, car after car stopped to ask if they could go down it. Even once I had procured some cones and a Road Closed sign, they still continued to ask. I didn't mind at first as it kept me occupied. I didn't want time to think.
I did, however, become a little less tolerant towards those that demanded access, regardless of the situation. You always get them...ask any serving officer who has ever closed a road. The upper class snobs who believe that access is their right...and that my sole intention in closing the road was to provide an inconvenience in their lives.
These people seem to think that telling me that "I pay your wages" will suddenly part the cones and allow them to drive their executive saloon unimpeded through the scene of the accident. One of them actually called me a fascist, and threatened to have my job if I didn't let them through. They have no comprehension that roads only get closed for a very good reason. A short diversion does not justify elitist abuse from every member of the would-be aristocracy that cannot bear the prospect of being five minutes late for their dinner party.
They have little, if any, concept of real life, and the tragedies that occur outside their electric gates and see the Police as no more than a necessary evil that should only interact with the lower classes or come running with bowed heads and doffed caps when someone pinches their staddle stones.
None of them knew what I had just gone through - I knew that. But regardless, I wished that some would give me a little more respect. We do what we do for a reason, and there is so much more to our job than most will ever know, or could ever imagine.
Perhaps one or two people will read this who have, in the past, thrown their hands in the air in disgust when presented by six cones and a yellow jacket. Perhaps they will consider that, just possibly, there might be another Dave down the road, and that the officer stood before them may well have just stared into the helpless eyes of the dying or the dead. Just drive on and work out a new way to get home from a layby down the road. It's not that much of an inconvenience really...is it?
Since that day I have been back to the scene a couple of times, and have made an effort to go to the local pub for that pint. I'm just sorry that Dave couldn't be there to join me...
From my blog at http://minimumcover.wordpress.com