A picture taken by an amateur photographer shows the scene of the helicopter crash in central London on Wednesday; (above) Commander Neil Basu of Scotland Yard who was in charge at the crash site. (AFP)
London, Jan. 16: When a helicopter crashed in London this morning, triggering a “major incident”, it was time for Commander Neil Basu, a senior Bengali officer with Scotland Yard, to take charge.
What happened is now more or less clear. A helicopter hit a construction crane on a 594 feet, 51-storey residential tower at about 8am in foggy London weather and plunged down in flames, killing two people, including the pilot, and injuring 13 people, one critically.
By lunchtime, the experienced pilot had been named as Pete Barnes. He worked for flight operator RotorMotion and had piloted helicopters in action scenes in such movies as Die Another Day, and Saving Private Ryan.
In the early morning, Basu’s manner was crisp, no nonsense, with the business-like demeanour of a police officer in full Scotland Yard uniform. He summed it all up in one line: “It was something of a miracle that this was not many, many times worse.”
It was indeed a miracle, especially for the crane driver who is never late except today when he arrived for work after taking his children to school. He will do the lottery next, his friends joked deploying British black humour.
The crash site, being a short drive from my home — the Oval cricket ground is close by — is well known to me for it is the way to London’s West End. The six lane very busy road curves round Vauxhall bus, rail and underground stations, past some of London’s most expensive high rise residential developments and over Vauxhall Bridge.
At the Vauxhall end of the bridge and familiar to those who have seen James Bond movies is the oddly shaped cream and green MI6 building, headquarters of British intelligence.
Basu, who was born in Stafford of Bengali/Welsh parentage, was the man in charge of the huge emergency operation and was also having to deal with a hungry 24-hour rolling media. Both the BBC and Sky were live from the scene.
Details were yet to be confirmed but Basu, an officer who has been fast tracked to his current position, came to the point, dealing in facts and avoiding speculation.
“I can confirm the pilot has been killed,” said Basu, who had 60 police officers in the area. “The helicopter was on a scheduled flight from Surrey,” he added. “It was scheduled to fly from Redhill to Elstree, Hertfordshire, but it was diverted. It’s possible it was diverted to another helipad.”
The police force was working with other agencies including the Air Accidents Investigation Branch and the Civilian Aviation Authority, he went on. Asked if the lights on top of the building and crane were faulty, he responded: “That will form part of the investigation.”
What happened today was nowhere near the scale of the emergency on July 7, 2007, when four suicide bombers hit London, killing 52 and injuring 700. But judging by the speed of the response of the emergency services, lessons have been learnt from periodic drills.
What struck me today was the following: the speed and professionalism with which the emergency services responded (probably 4 minutes from the time of the crash); use of women reporters who were on the scene doing live television (once this would have regarded as a job for the “big boys”); the exemplary way in which David Cameron, the Prime Minister, and the leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband, came together to react to the incident and provide political leadership; the swiftness with which ordinary members of the public provided graphic eye witness accounts and also how rapidly the story of what had happened was built up; and an assessment of what needed to be done to make London safer given the increasing use of helicopters in built-up areas.There was traffic chaos in the wake of the incident, with Vauxhall Bridge Road southbound closed, Wandsworth Road partially closed, Nine Elms Lane partially closed and South Lambeth Road partially closed. Vauxhall Tube, railway and bus stations were also closed.
London Fire Brigade issued a statement: “Six fire engines, four fire rescue units, a number of other specialist vehicles, 88 firefighters and officers are attending a helicopter crash near Wandsworth Road in Vauxhall. Firefighters have now brought the fire under control.”
There was no shortage of eye witness accounts since many people were going to work just at that time via Vauxhall.
Stephen Swan, who lives in St George Wharf, said when he heard the collision he thought the nearby MI6 building had been attacked by terrorists. The Tower, One St George Wharf, where the helicopter crashed, is close to completion and will be one of Europe’s tallest residential buildings.“We heard a big crash, the bang, and then we got up and went out on the balcony,” he reported. “We thought something terrible had happened at MI6, it was scary. I’d just watched the film Skyfall not so long ago, and seeing that place (MI6) pretend blown up I thought, ‘Oh my God, what’s going on?’”