On 22 August 2016, I was involved in my first (and, hopefully, only) demolition accident.
Without taking you to the site, it would be virtually impossible to explain just how my accident came about. But I’ll try.
I had gone through the usual site induction required of all site visitors these days and walked to the “safe” area in which I was planning to photograph and film a high reach excavator in action. Ironically – well, it is ironic now – I was talking to the site manager about the Didcot accident while we walked to the work area.
I was positioned approximately 25 metres from the base of a five-storey former office block. To my right was the high reach excavator charged with taking the structure down. To my immediate left was the site manager and to his immediate left was a very large dust suppression unit that stood a good two metres tall and which was almost as wide.
The high reach was starting work that very morning and had actually been working for less than three minutes when a “clump” of bricks fell five storeys to the ground.
For reasons that I have yet to fathom and which subsequent investigations have failed to explain, one of those bricks was ejected sideways. It managed to miss the dust suppression unit, apparently came over the site manager’s shoulder and then hit me square in the face.
I saw it coming. But it was traveling at such speed that I managed to duck no more than a few inches before I felt the impact.
Much to my surprise – and this only became evident afterwards – it did not knock me down, neither did it render me unconscious. Instead, the site manager reacted quickly and laid me down in the recovery position – my camera bag is blood-stained to this day – while those around us sprang into action, calling ambulances, halting work and alerting those that needed alerting.
I am told that the ambulance took less than 10 minutes to arrive. But with blood streaming down my face and my brain assuring me that I was now blind in one eye, it felt a whole lot longer.
I received a call from the managing director of the company upon whose site the accident happened (see panel) assuring me that an investigation was already underway and that his insurance would take care of the resulting claim. I also had a call from the site manager to make sure that I had got home safely and that I was OK. I assured him that I was, even though I couldn’t see clearly enough to make myself a cup of tea.
Within 24 hours, that reassurance had proved misplaced and I was back in A&E again sporting the mother of all headaches and a left eye that looked like it had been plucked straight from a low-budget slasher film’s special effects department.
A big whack of antibiotics and enough co-dydramol to fell an elephant later and I was sent home. But any thought that my interactions with the medical profession were now over was premature in the extreme.
After three days on co-dydramol, my body reacted in a spectacular and adverse manner. My wife found me semi-conscious on the bathroom floor and called an ambulance. Thankfully, the paramedic quickly diagnosed me apparent intolerance for this painkiller and any crisis was averted.
By this time, I had still not heard from the contractor’s insurance company so I was forced to call them myself. At this point, they told me that it was my job to make the claim (even though they had been informed of the accident) and that I needed to put it in writing (even though they were already working on an investigation).
With my vision still impaired, I dictated a letter to my youngest son and sent it off. At the same time, I sought some advice from a demolition insurance company that I know and trust to find out what the process might be and how long it might take. I was informed that the process might take between three and six months, which was of scant consolation as – as a self-employed person – I had already lost more than a week of work.
Once the external swelling had subsided, the real fun and games began. To date, I have had three sets of x-rays, two MRI scans, four maxillofacial appointments, four visits to Moorfield Eye Hospital (and another to follow before the end of the year). My eye socket which was fractured in the accident remains tender to the touch. My teeth still don’t quite meet as they should and several have been loosened by the impact. And both my left temple and upper lip area remain largely numb.
Worst of all is the damage to my eyesight. The vision in my left eye has been greatly worsened by the accident, and while my usual reading glasses help, I am still only able to look at a computer screen in relatively short bursts.
According to the numerous eye tests, my eyesight is improving, but in VERY small increments and it might take up to six months before any internal swelling has subsided and the true extent of any lasting damage can be ascertained. Until then, I am living with severe double-vision whenever I look up, and a weird black mark when I look left without turning my head. Headaches caused by eye-strain have become my constant companion.
The accident has proven to be a great – if unwelcome – learning experience.
I learned that demolition men’s ability to respond to an incident is probably without equal outside the emergency services and armed forces. Never have I seen men act with such calm and composure when faced with a bleeding man lying on the ground.
I learned that the UK’s National Health Service really is as good as everyone claims it to be. I have been on this planet for 51 years now and – aside from a tonsillectomy at 18 and a burst appendix last year – I have managed to give hospitals a swerve. Having now spent more than my fair share of time within them, I have nothing but praise for the people that put my face back together in roughly the same way as God intended.
I learned that those associated with demolition really DO deserve their “salt of the Earth” reputation. I had almost countless messages and emails of support, several gifts, and a stream of phone calls and social media messages checking to make sure that I am OK. For that I shall be forever grateful.
I learned that the human body – even a soft, squidgy bit like an eye – is remarkably resilient, even when it’s struck upside the head with a brick travelling at terminal velocity.
I learned that the insurance sector – at least the very specific bit that I am dealing with – is in no hurry to help the victim of an accident and about as communicative as the average mime. At the time of writing, it is three months since the accident. In that time, I have received one phone call and one letter followed by a great deal of radio silence and resolution remains elusive.
I learned that the term “freak accident” does not even begin to describe just what can happen on a demolition site. Since I was hit by a brick that dipped and swerved like a David Beckham free kick, I have heard tale of people being hit by steel that bounced under a fence and – more amazingly – a piece of concrete that punched through the base of an excavator windscreen, hit and broke one of the pedals before ricocheting upwards and breaking the jaw of the operator. Quite how health and safety professionals are expected to carry out meaning full risk assessments when concrete is going around not one but TWO corners I just don’t know.
Most of all, I learned that accidents really can happen to anyone. They have no respect for 30 years of experience or the volume of PPE you’re wearing.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again (this time with more feeling and personal experience). Please be careful out there.
If you can bear to look at it, you can see the aftermath of my accident here.