For most of us, the idea of being witness to, or involved in, ‘a major incident’ is probably something we idly imagine, or hope never to experience. When it actually happens, it is such an odd and disconcerting experience, I thought I had better put it down in writing before I forget.
I have been in proximity to a major incident before, the tragic events of 7/7 – although thankfully not a witness, I was inadvertently quite close by, trying to get back to my office after being evacuated from the tube. But my memories of that day have become very much mingled with the collective memories of my work colleagues and the images which filled up the news night after night.
This time, thankfully, there were no fatalities, so the experience has become much less upsetting and more fascinating, realising you are a bystander to an event which has taken over the news on a slow news summer day.
We were going to the seaside on Bank Holiday Saturday, and had made very good time getting out of London – avoiding the south circular meant we’d barely been stationary by the time we got on the motorway. Then, suddenly, the unwelcome sight of traffic slowing down ahead.
We ground to a halt, and almost immediately saw that people were getting out of their cars. At first we were incredulous – surely if it was a crash on the other side we’d be moving fairly soon, why risk getting out of the car? – and a sense of distaste at the thought of rubberneckers, if the accident was serious.
It reaffirmed my instinct that I am not a rubbernecker – I am terminally nosy, but I don’t want to see bad stuff, and I don’t want to see others suffering. But then, as more and more people got out of their cars, I searched for ‘M20 traffic’ on Twitter and discovered that what had actually happened was a motorway bridge had collapsed onto a lorry (or been hit BY the lorry – at this point it wasn’t clear).
Then, I started to have a different appreciation for the ‘rubberneckers’ – perhaps, after all, these were the ‘citizen journalists’ who were communicating the news story as it happened; as we waited, many people around us were tweeting pictures and video footage to local radio stations, getting the word out there fast and perhaps saving other drivers from wasted journeys.
With two children getting bored and fidgety in the back, we did eventually get out of the car, but I didn’t feel very comfortable doing it – there were still motorbikes (police and otherwise) weaving through the cars, and people opening car doors unexpectedly, but it was too surreal and odd not to take the opportunity to walk on a motorway.
This photo shows where we were, right in the middle of the jam, about 40-50 cars behind the bridge itself. We saw the air ambulance hovering but didn’t see where it landed – it was already being reported on social media that there was only one injured person, and unbelievably, it was being said they had only sustained minor injuries.
Still, even knowing it was not a fatal crash scene, I didn’t want to go any closer. I didn’t actually see the broken bridge or the trapped lorry myself, despite being so close – it is odd, but somehow I knew I didn’t want to be one of the gawpers.
The atmosphere at this point had changed, though – we all knew no-one had been killed, miraculously, but we all also knew we might be there a long while, so a bit of Blitz spirit had kicked in – people were chatting to each other, football was being played on the other side of the barrier and a remote control car being driven around. People were climbing the nearest stairs up the embankment and bringing back cold drinks, apparently from a local golf course.
We had thankfully brought packed lunches for the children and lots of water, but I *was* beginning to wonder when I’d get to go to the loo. (We’d been stationary for about 80 – 90 minutes at that point).
We began to notice a few drivers were turning around near us – at first we thought ‘no way’, surely they would just get stuck in amongst the traffic facing the right way, surely there was no way through?
Then we noticed they were going through a gap in the central reservation a few hundred yards behind us, and by then lots of engines were starting up. Clearly we were not going to leave the motorway driving forward, as it wasn’t safe to go under the hanging half-bridge, so we had to turn round to get out.
We joined the queue weaving through the stationary cars, and in only a few blessed minutes we were being waved through the gap by a police motorcyclist. Oh the joy of being on an empty motorway speeding away from the jam, and the relief of it being finally over, and the pity for those still stuck on the wrong side!
Our day out at the seaside was not to be, but having been cooped up in the car for hours, we couldn’t just go straight home. We realised we were very close to lovely, tranquil Ightham Mote and there couldn’t have been a better place to rest and recover ourselves.
It certainly wasn’t the day we planned, but it was simply a huge relief to have been able to drive away unscathed from something that could have been an awful tragedy.
The wider implications of what happened – the state of motorway bridge maintenance, the height of the load which hit the bridge, are still at the back of my mind, and I’m sure it will be a while before I feel comfortable going under motorway bridges again, but for now, the ‘major incident’ can become one of those ‘I can’t quite believe this happened to us’ tales we will remember for many years.
And to repeat the advice I’m glad I had already taken – full packed lunch and lots of water. The children ate two lunches that day in the end, but without the distraction of food I don’t know what we would have done.