Every police officer has attended an incident, a terrible incident that remains with him or her forever. You take it to bed with you and over time the story recedes a little more into the background of your mind. However, there are times and reminders when the story is once again dragged back into the forefront of your mind. This is such a story that still haunts me, almost forty years later.
This is a story of a traffic accident that I attended in the early hours of one morning, an accident where I felt absolutely useless. I can never forget it and probably cannot describe it clearly enough in words to indicate fully the terrible scene that Bob and I encountered that early morning.
This could not be published without the express permission of the relatives and I am truly grateful for their permission.
(This permission was granted many years ago now.)
John Street Police Station
The story starts while I was in John Street Police Station just as my meal break finished. The time was a little before 3am and I was working on the General Purpose (GP) car, crewed with Bob Kennard, my usual partner. In general it had been a ‘quiet’ night and our thoughts turned towards home time at 6am.
As was usual, we breezed into the Communications Room, full of the joys of spring when the sergeant said, ‘what’s wrong with you two?’ I said, ‘Very quiet tonight isn’t it?’ ‘Shush’ the sergeant said. It was deemed bad luck if you mentioned the fact that it was quiet, indicating not many calls to the police. The sergeant said,’ isn’t it about time you two were out, it’s almost 3 am.’
With that we left the room and went down to the car, which was parked in the car park at the back of John Street Police Station and got in. I was driving and Bob was the observer. We booked on with both the Lewes car radio system and also our personal radios. I drove out from the back of the Police station and down Kingswood Street and into Grand Parade; there was only the odd vehicle about.
We decided that we would patrol up Ditchling Road up to Upper Hollingdean Road and back down to Lewes Road for tea in the box at the bottom of Elm Grove at 4am. This was our usual stop around that time for a cup of tea. This kept us in a fairly central position should a call come up for us. It would take but a few minutes from this position to get to the Seafront, Woodingdean or maybe Moulescombe.
We had plenty of time and so I drove slowly along the road, just keeping an eye out for anything of interest to us. I had just turned into Ditchling Road, south of the level and was driving little more than 20 mph; we were both deep in thought.
Suddenly, the radio crackled into life with our call sign. Bob answered the radio giving our location; the message directed us towards the top of Ditchling Road to Hollingbury Copse to deal with an ‘incident.’ The caller living in the Copse was a special constable. I increased the speed to 30 mph but really was in no hurry, this didn’t seem to be anything much. Some special constables embroidered situations to try to make them more important than what they actually were. This time it was very much ‘under estimated. Had we been told it was a traffic accident then I would have driven a lot faster than I did. We made quite good time without rushing and found Hollingbury Copse and turned into it.
What a shock awaited us, I have never witnessed such a scene as we were faced with that early morning. It was sheer carnage and as we stopped and hurried out from our police car, we didn’t know what to do first. It seemed initially that everything needed to be attended to straight away.
There was a saloon car embedded into a stone built garden wall. It had crashed with such force that the engine was pushed back almost to the driver’s sitting position.
The top of the windscreen had been pushed back and the top half of the driver and front passenger had been pushed through the windscreen and trapped in that position. One was screaming in pain, the other shouting for help, we went to them, first tugging at the metal, hoping that somehow we could release them but deep down knowing that it was hopeless. The car had contained six adults, two males in the front seats and four females in the rear seats.
We quickly realised that we had a very serious accident and immediately shouted for assistance with our personal radio sets. We also informed communications Room that we needed at least two ambulances and the Fire Brigade.
Come up here, quick
The Special Constable who lived in the house told us that he had called us to the scene. He shouted to us, ‘come up here, quick.’ We both climbed the garden wall and into the front garden of the house. In the middle of the garden was a large tree and lying on the grass at the foot of the tree was an elderly lady, quite still. She appeared to be dead, we felt her pulse but there was nothing. We just placed a blanket over her.
We both jumped down to find that one of the females in the back of the car had managed to get out and was leaning against the car. We helped the other female to get out; she was suffering with a serious foot and leg injury. Meanwhile the two men in the front were shouting for us to help them. I have never felt so useless at an accident in all my life. We both tried everything to free the men but without success.
We shouted again for the ambulance and Fire Brigade, utter urgency in our voices, which it seemed we called for about an hour beforehand, although it probably was only a few minutes. When you are waiting for one of the services to attend it always seemed ages before they arrived.
We continued to try and comfort the four injured people and although we had our first aid kit out, it all seemed totally futile. By this time we were getting very frustrated, it really was a terrible position to be in but of course not as bad as for
The two trapped men and both of the females were extremely shocked and upset and I think they realised the position we were in. We had them sitting in our car; they were both consoling each other, although their thoughts were for their men-folk.
Danger of fire
One of the dangers of an accident like this was the danger of fire. We only had a small fire extinguisher from the car, which would have been totally inadequate had the car caught fire. It would almost certainly have caused the deaths of the two men trapped in the car.
At last, in the distance we heard the distinct sound of two-tone horns of the approaching emergency vehicles. I must admit that I have never felt so relieved in all my life. ‘At last,’ I said in a loud voice, ‘they’re coming.’ And within a minute or so, they were with us at the scene. I quickly told the Fire Officer of the problem as the ambulance crew attended to the injured people, one of whom attended the elderly lady in the garden.
Reluctantly, the two females were led away from the actual scene and placed in the ambulance, as another ambulance arrived at the scene.
The Firemen were soon involved in the rescue of the two-trapped men and although it did take a while, it was an extremely difficult manoeuvre but with their skills and tools eventually managed to free them. Their terrible pain was clear for all to see, their screams and shouts echoed in the small street and was quite chilling.
They were carefully lifted out of the mangled vehicle and placed in the other ambulance. The two females refused at first to go anywhere until they knew that the men would be rescued. The men, terribly injured, their screams reduced to a loud moaning sound were soon secured in the ambulance and within seconds were on their way to the Royal Sussex County Hospital. The elderly lady found in the garden was also taken to the hospital in yet another ambulance. She was pronounced dead when she arrived at the Royal Sussex County Hospital.
Meanwhile, our sergeant and Inspector had arrived but let us get on with our work. The inspector asking a few questions in order that he was fully in the picture as to what happened.
Bob and I looked at each other and although we didn’t say anything, we both knew what each of us was thinking, relief showing on both our faces.
I lit up a cigarette, not worrying if our supervisory Officers said anything or not. It took a few minutes for it all to sink in; it had been just like a nightmare, a terrible, terrible nightmare, except that this was for real. A few minutes later the Special Constable appeared with a tray of cups of tea and a plate of biscuits and that has to go down as one of the best cups of tea ever. He and his wife supplied all the firemen with tea and biscuits as well as us.
We then set about trying to work out the details of what had actually happened and why the car had crashed. We knew just about nothing at this stage, not even any names. It wasn’t the time to worry about obtaining names and addresses; there was plenty of time to worry about such details later on. Another Officer was detailed to attend the hospital to obtain the necessary details.
Bob Kennard, my partner commenced to collate as many details as he could while still at the scene, while I marked out the vehicle on the road with special chalk. It was my job to produce a road map to scale and place the vehicle in the correct position on the map. This was to aid the coroner at a later stage and also to aid the investigation on how this terrible accident had happened. Bob should have attended the hospital with the lady found in the garden but didn’t, another officer attended the hospital in Bob’s place but Bob attended a little later. We booked off duty rather late that morning, both still shaking from the trauma of the accident, still talking about the terrible incident that we had attended. I knew then that I would never forget the so called ‘incident’ that we had been directed to. I have never got it out of my mind, the fact that I drove slowly to the incident when I know I could have got to the scene much quicker. I was told a few days later when I mentioned this fact to my shift Inspector that had I got there any quicker, could I have done anything different, could I have helped the injured more? – of course the answer is no.
We later found out that all the occupants of the car were relatives of one of our own Police officers, P.C. 340 Derek Edwards. There had been a family gathering at his home in Hollingbury. The driver had not been drinking anything alcoholic; in fact no one had been drinking any alcohol. That I feel was a great relief to us all.
I cannot recall who called at Pc Edward’s home to inform the family there of the tragic accident but it was possibly our section Sergeant or Inspector.
The later investigation never fully concluded the reason for the accident but the possibility of the driver falling asleep has to be high up in the list of reasons, however this was never proved. When an accident is un-explained, just about everyone comes up with suggested reasons, none of which were ever proved to be right. The accident to this day has never had a reason while it happened and now never will.