100 cars. 10 minutes

2 February 2014
The Sunday Times

While firefighters worked to free people trapped in their cars, medical staff treated close to 200 more. Miraculously, nobody was killed. Here, the drivers and emergency workers relive the impact

During the morning rush hour on Thursday, September 5, 2013, 100 cars piled into each other on the Sheppey Crossing, a bridge that links the Isle of Sheppey with the mainland of Kent. A further 53 cars were caught up in the accident but were left undamaged. It started around 7.15am and continued for 10 minutes as cars, lorries and transporters ploughed into each other in dense fog. Vehicles were trapped in a tangle of crushed metal and broken glass.

Firefighters freed six people from their cars and scores more were treated by medical staff; eight were seriously injured and 35 others were treated for minor injuries in hospital. The crash was one of the worst seen on Britain’s roads.

1 Martin Stammers, 45, was one of the first drivers caught up in the crash. He was travelling with his son, Jay, 18

At 7.15 am, as Jay and I drove to work, there was a white blanket of fog in front of us. I was feeling anxious as we reached the bridge. Visibility was just 20 yards and it seemed like my white Audi was the only car on the road.

Suddenly a car appeared directly in frontof me. I hit the brakes and swerved to avoid it. I managed to squeeze through the tiny gap between the car and the central reservation and brought my car to a stop. A deadly silence followed. I got out of the car and discovered that the vehicle I’d avoided was one of four that had crashed. Seconds later, the silence was broken by the sound of screeching car tyres, glass breaking and the boom of metal on metal. More cars were ramming into the back of each other. It was surreal.

Jay and I went to offer help to the people in front of us who were standing about in shock. Luckily, none of them were badly injured. Soon after, I spotted a car driving on the other side of the central reservation. I was worried there would be another accident, so I ran over and waved frantically at the oncoming vehicles.

An ambulance showed up, followed by a police car. I started to walk back down by the line of cars. There were cars up in the air, cars under lorries, cars squashed between cars. I was worried about the possibility of cars catching fire and the kids on their way to school. We could see people lying on the road. One lady was crying. She told me all the cars from behind just kept hitting her. She had thought she was going to die. A young girl kept saying: “Look at my car, it’s all smashed up.”

Shock set in and I told a police officer that I needed to go. I was able to drive off because my car was parked ahead of the line of crashed vehicles. When we were on our way I phoned Kent FM to ask them to warn other drivers about the accident, and they put out an alert. Once I arrived at work I got a phone call from my mum. I couldn’t talk to her; Jay and I were both crying by then. That night we drove home over the bridge, which was a bit eerie. I’ll never forget the sound of the vehicles crashing.

2 Andrew Birchmore, a 25-year-old teacher, escaped through a rear window of his car, seconds before a lorry ploughed into it

I left my home in Minster around 7.30am — plenty of time to get to work, or so I thought. As I came over the brow of the bridge I was doing 40-50mph. I could make out loads of brake lights and when the car in front of me jerked to a halt I knew I wasn’t going to be able to stop in time. I braked, prepared for impact and smashed into the car.

My head hit the steering wheel and the airbag inflated. I panicked. I thought my car was going to catch fire. It filled up with dust and began to make funny noises, so I turned off the engine. The doors were tightly wedged and I couldn’t get out, so I tried to open the electric windows but they didn’t work with the engine off. I managed to scramble out through one of the manually operated windows in the back. Seconds later, a lorry slammed into my car.

People looked stunned. I went to check on the driver in front of me. He had chest pains and blood was coming out of his ear. His wife and son were travelling in a separate car behind him. They ran past the smashed vehicles and were hysterical by the time they spotted him. Within 10 minutes the police, the fire brigade and paramedics had arrived and he was cut out of the car and lifted through the roof.

I saw a pregnant woman being cut out of her car and heard about another woman who opened the door without checking behind her, and it was taken off by another out-of-control car. I saw a motorcyclist pinned under a lorry and a car squashed like a concertina, the windscreen folded. One guy with a two-seater car said he took his seat belt off to get out, right after he was hit, but as he did so, he got hit and thrown about again. I heard that someone else had to have their arm amputated.

I called home and told my little sister to tell my dad to avoid the bridge. Later my mum found out, and she got very upset.

When the sun came out and burnt off the fog I could see the carnage; it was haunting. I was surprised that nobody died in the accident. The front of my green Peugeot had caved in and the engine was hanging out.

In the afternoon, I climbed back into my car to get my belongings. The cars were dragged away by recovery vehicles and I was dropped back to the island. I was suffering from back and neck ache and was treated at Minster Hospital. I had to take a few days off. It wasn’t what I’d planned for the first week of my new job.

3 Catherine Aherne, 28, was travelling to London with her husband and nine-month-old daughter

As my we were coming down the lane from Eastchurch [on the Isle of Sheppey] in our blue Polo, I had my Enya CD playing calming music. Thank God I wasn’t listening to anything fast-paced, because that would have made me drive faster.

As we went over the top bridge a gentleman came running towards us, waving his arms, so I slowed down. A van appeared in front of me and his brake and hazard lights came on. I hit the brakes and swung into the right lane to avoid crashing into the back of him.

We came to a stop and my husband jumped out. I lifted my nine-month-old daughter out of her baby seat and into my arms. I heard the screeching behind us. I waited as the sound of crushing and creaking metal continued. Fear set in. Is it safe to be here? Do we get out of the car and go to the other side of the road where the traffic is still moving? Can I smell fuel? Is there a leak? Could there be an explosion?

The emergency services arrived around 8am and asked us to vacate our car and cross over to the central reservation, down to the bottom of the bridge while we waited for the wreckage to be cleared. Close to 100 vehicles had crashed in front of us and about 60 were caught up in the accident behind. We were in a bubble of 10-15 cars that were undamaged. Almost bang in the middle, without the bang.

Tarpaulin was being laid out and my first thought was: “They’re going to put dead bodies on that.” I just kept choking up and my husband kept saying: “Pull yourself together.” When the fog lifted around 9.15am people started to gasp. It was a relief to hear groaning and see moving, living bodies.

Although paramedics had given me a blanket in the morning, by the early afternoon I was almost stripping my daughter off because of the heat. Everyone was under the general consensus that we should have driven slower. I was doing 40-45mph, but we should have been crawling along at 20-30mph. Some said that if there were lights on the bridge, it would have helped, but the fog was so dense you couldn’t even see fog lights in front of you, let alone any other type of lights.

At 1.30pm we meandered through the crashed vehicles back to our car and drove off. It seems a miracle that we came off unscathed and our little Polo wasn’t crushed. We’ve since swapped it for a nice, big family car.

4 Clare Rudd, 41, is a call handler with the South East Coast Ambulance Service. Her team initially dispatched two ambulances to the scene before they realised the gravity of the situation

One of our new dispatchers took the call about the crash. It was described as a pile-up of 24 cars. At that point we had no idea what was going on. We initially dispatched two ambulances but soon afterwards the police contacted us to say that about 150 cars were involved and help was needed.

We sent about 34 resources to the scene, including a doctor who went in a car, both of our critical care paramedics unit — ambulances with specially trained staff — and our paramedic practitioners, who deal with minor injuries. We also sent our hazardous rapid-response team; they have specialists with big vehicles carrying pop-up tents. We knew that once the fog lifted, there was potential for people to suffer from sunstroke or dehydration so they needed shelter.

The accident couldn’t have happened at a better time. All the newly clocked in, fresh crews were being sent out in fully equipped vehicles. Had it happened at the other end of the day, it would have been a lot harder to deal with.

5 Chris Stamp, 52, is the senior operations manager for Kent and Medway, South East Coast Ambulance Service. He was on the ground overseeing the ambulance crews

I’ve been in the service for 25 years and this was probably the biggest incident I’ve attended to. When I approached the bridge I could see a mile and a half of cars crashed into each other and a large group of people being treated by paramedics.

Imagine taking a paper box and squashing it: that gives you an idea of what the cars looked like. But the design of vehicles was significant in so much as more people weren’t injured. You look at a car and think “nobody will get out of that”, but people do because they’re built with safety cages, restraints and airbags. All those things helped to reduce the injuries.

I established a triage area to examine and prioritise patients based on their injuries. Those who had to be cut out of their vehicles were moved to this area. They were secured and carried on long flat boards, to protect their spines. We walked other uninjured people to an area where we could keep them in relative safety.

People had a variety of injuries, such as broken bones, spinal injuries and damage to internal organs but it was clear from the beginning that there were two priority patients. One had a head injury and both had serious chest injuries. They had open wounds and there was a lot of blood. Our critical care paramedics treated those patients.

It was a very hot day and people had to wait a long time to be allowed back to their vehicles. Part way through the incident our focus moved from the patients who had been directly involved in the crash to those with chronic illnesses such as asthma or bronchitis, and to the vulnerable who needed attention. The paramedic practitioners looked after about 150 of those. We had to physically check each one of them to make sure that their condition didn’t change; people can become dehydrated very quickly, especially the elderly and the young. I arranged for them to walk through and eyeball every single patient.

6 Neil Ryder, 44, has worked with the fire services for almost 30 years. He and his team freed people trapped in their vehicles

Walking onto the bridge was like stepping onto a film set; it was like a scene from a Hollywood blockbuster. You could see smashed cars and walking wounded.

In my job you have to get your mind into a place where you can start dealing with possible leaks, extractions, heavy goods vehicles carrying dangerous substances, vehicles on fire. After an accident like this one, we tend to walk quickly through the wreckage to find out who is injured, and who needs to be cut out of their vehicle. In some cases we just rip doors off their vehicles, a bit of brute strength is required, but nine times out of 10 we use our hydraulic rescue equipment: hydraulic cutters, rams and pedal cutters.

We relied on six special vehicles carrying the cutting equipment. The first person we rescued that day was a man. His wife was there pointing him out so we knew he was in trouble. He wasn’t badly injured but was complaining of chest injuries. I remember him holding his chest and his arm. We reassured him. We cut into his door and removed parts of it so we could get a spinal board inside the vehicle. We moved him onto the board and worked with the ambulance service to move him across the mangled car wreck onto the hard shoulder.

The most difficult part of the job was rescuing a gentleman who was pinned in by a car, a car transporter and an open-backed truck. It took a while to get to him because of where he was in the accident. Our crew had to climb over vehicles, and there was dew on the cars from the fog, so it was very slippy.

Some people were trapped by a vehicle that was crushed and squashed around them, so the roof needed to be taken off. We explained there would be loud noises, bangs and crashing. We covered them with soft and hard protection; a sheet to protect them from falling glass and a hard cover to protect them while we cut into the metal. Someone was looking down on everyone that day. The fact that nobody was killed is unbelievable.

7 Julia Farley is a nurse at Rochester Prison and a volunteer with Dogs Lost. She reunited Boycie, a staffordshire terrier, with his family after he jumped out of his owner’s mangled van

One of my friends is a Dogs Lost co-ordinator and she messaged me that morning on Facebook to tell me she’d had a call about Boycie, a dark brindle staffordshire terrier. He had been travelling in the back of his owner’s van and had gone missing in the wake of the accident. It was the owner’s daughter who contacted my friend. Her father had been badly injured in the accident and he and his wife had been taken to hospital and she was very concerned about the dog.

I arranged to meet with another volunteer and her sniffer dog. Together we went to pick up an item belonging to Boycie. Around 10.30am, after our tracker dog took a few sniffs, we drove to the scene.

We saw mangled cars and lorries and I was frightened that we wouldn’t find Boycie — dogs tend to run off and hide when these things happen. We spoke to a police officer and explained why we were there.

Soon after, we discovered that a dog matching Boycie’s description had been found hiding in one of the crashed cars by a fireman. The officer arranged for us to go to the fire engine where he was being looked after. The little thing was clearly very stressed and we tried to give him water because he had been in the sun for quite a while. We checked the photos on Facebook to make sure he was indeed Boycie and my fellow volunteer confirmed it with her chip scanner.

The couple’s daughter lives on the island, near Halfway. Once we got to her house, Boycie got out of the car so fast we just knew he was at the right place. The daughter choked up when she saw him and made a huge fuss. As he was most likely thrown forward on impact, he was taken to the vet, who said he was fine but shocked and dehydrated. I had an update the next day to say he spent the night on the sofa, had some steak and was feeling a lot better.

8 Adrian Clee, 46, is a programme director with The Salvation Army Church. He was on hand to offer food and drink to those involved in the crash

I had a phone call from the emergency planning team at Kent County Council around 10am to see if we could get our emergency vehicle to the scene. I grabbed a fellow volunteer and we were there 40 minutes later. The fog had lifted so I could see the emergency services and swathes of people milling around and a huge number of vehicles, all crushed together on the bridge.

It was a very hot day so we erected a pop-up gazebo to give people shelter. There were no shops nearby so we took along loads of water, cold drinks, chocolate, crisps and Cup-a-Soups and set up a tea-and-coffee station. We’ve never gone through so much so quickly. We carry 25 containers full of water, and by the end of the afternoon we were coming to the end of that. Luckily, the Red Cross and St John’s Ambulance were also on hand with more water.

There were young mums with young children desperate for baby food, so we improvised with biscuits and milk and made up a basic snack. It was a real learning curve for us because it was one of the biggest crashes we’ve been involved with. We never used to carry baby food or nappies, but now we do.

People were getting hot and frustrated after waiting for such a long time. They were starting to reflect on the fact that the accident could have been a lot worse. Many were paying tribute to a lorry driver who had parked his lorry across the bridge to stop more people from crashing.

We had a bit of a laugh and a joke with people, and tried to take their minds off the situation. If there was anything we could do to help, we did, such as plugging people’s phones into our onboard chargers for a bit. Suddenly, around 3pm, the police called a load of people together and told them to go back to their car if it could be driven. Within the space of 20 minutes, most people had disappeared.

9 Peter Orsman, 39, a senior matron at Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother Hospital, Margate, was in his second day at his new job. The hospital treated 12 of those injured in the accident

There always seems to be a breakdown of communication during these kinds of incidents. When the ambulances come in they tell you hundreds of people are dying. You never really know what you’re going to get. Our first patient arrived at 10am and clarification came around 10.30am, when the doctors at the scene called us. They explained the situation and told us we’d be getting 12 casualties.

Although the accident happened early in the morning, it took a long time for the first patients to arrive because the ambulance services were triaging them at the scene. Midway Hospital was the main receiving hospital for patients, but they soon reached capacity, which meant the ambulance services needed to look elsewhere.

The patients we treated in the A&E department were mostly commuters. They arrived on spinal boards. It takes five people to take someone off the board, which is quite a drain on resources. After that they were examined and sent for X-rays.

The most badly injured was a man who went to the minor injury centre in Canterbury. He had abdominal trauma and was taken straight in by the surgeons. I saw broken arms and legs, but we didn’t get any blood or open wounds. We had a really badly injured guy who was seen by the orthopaedic surgeon, and he was went home with both arms in plaster.

Nobody was crying out in pain when they came in, probably because they arrived hours after the accident. Some were actually laughing and even quite jolly! There was a sense of camaraderie about, and all the patients went home that same day.

10 Inspector Martin Stevens, 46, who heads the Serious Collision Investigation Unit at Kent Police, is leading the investigation into the accident

As I approached the scene around 8.20am, there was a huge amount of controlled chaos. Most of the public involved were walking down the bridge to a safety point. A number of fire trucks were there and people were being cut out of their cars.

The scene was unsafe for us to work in, in terms of an investigation, as it was still in the rescue phase. The priority was to ensure that everyone was safe before any investigation could be carried out. The collision had started at the bottom of the bridge so the first 60 to 70 vehicles were the worst of the damaged.

We were incredibly surprised that there were no fatalities, given the number of badly impacted vehicles. The other thing that surprised me was there had been no fire. If that had happened, you can imagine how bad it would have been for those who had been trapped. Everyone knew how lucky they were to survive.

After making sure everyone was fine, the next thing I had to do was number all the vehicles sequentially. There were 100 damaged ones and 153 when you took into account those not damaged but trapped at the scene.

Then we called in vehicle-recovery agents to clear the bridge and we implemented a conveyor-belt system where one vehicle was removed at a time. It was a slow process but it worked well. I left the scene around 5pm.

In the past 10 years we’ve had a couple of large collisions, but this was certainly the biggest. Our investigation has proved that there is sufficient evidence to prosecute 32 drivers for failing to drive with due care and attention and for travelling at speed despite low visibility. Rather than go through the process of taking people to court, we’ve offered them the chance to go on a National Driver Alertness Course.