The car crash that changed my life

as always, click on the small picture to see the larger one

To read some of what happened during the Court Trial of the other driver, click court case

I was driving along the A46 on Friday the 2nd of February 1996, a date embedded in my mind. The weather was overcast but not raining, the road was damp and I was driving on dipped headlights in a contract Ford Mondeo which was 2 years old.

I had just made 3 telephone calls, hands free, on the mobile. One to Audit letting them know the results of an investigation I had completed at a power station which had ended with the words "see you Monday", one to my deputy which had ended with her saying "drive carefully, see you Monday" and one to Christopher, my son, who was home from school with a virus to let him know I should be home by five, traffic permitting.

At about ten past three I was following a double-decker bus and an articulated lorry at about 35 mph, the first car in a queue of traffic. I knew that at The Stag Public House, the road became 3 lanes so I prepared myself to see if the road was clear to overtake.

 

The view driving towards the Stag Public House (indicated by the arrow)

As I came over the crest of the hill and before I entered the beginning of the 3 lane road, I saw 2 lorries coming up the hill in their nearside lane. Both appeared close to the top of the hill and due to the proximity of the end of the middle lane, indicated by warning arrows on the road, I believed that the second lorry would not have room to overtake the first lorry. I also saw another vehicle beginning to climb the hill. I could not tell if it was a car or a van but it was also in its nearside lane.

 

The view just over the crest of the hill looking down towards where the lorries were (marked with X)

I looked to the lane markings to check that it was legal for me to overtake (that is that they had not changed since the last time I had driven the road) and saw that it was still the same and that I could overtake. I checked my rearview mirror and saw that nothing was attempting to overtake me. I therefore judged it safe to overtake so I indicated right, changed down and accelerated out and past the articulated lorry.

Approximate point of impact down the hill (note: road markings have been changed since my crash to prevent anyone overtaking down the hill)

I was about half way down the length of the articulated lorry when, to my horror, I saw the second lorry coming up the hill suddenly pull into the middle lane to overtake the first lorry. I immediately stood on the brakes but I could not pull to the left because of the articulated lorry, to the right because of the lorry he was overtaking, and there was no space on either side of the lorry due to the width of the road. Still braking hard, I said "Oh shit", wished to myself that the airbag would work, closed my eyes and then........

There was an immediate loud bang and sudden impact. I didn't feel anything but a sudden deceleration, the seat belt tightening across my chest and a very loud noise. It was then very quiet - the engine had stopped, the tape had stopped, and I could hear only glass falling and steam hissing. I opened my eyes and could only see crazed glass in the windscreen. I looked down and saw that I was stuck in the dashboard. My left leg was hidden from the knee downwards and where my leg had hit the underside of the plastic of the dash or the dash had hit my leg - just above the knee - I could see a hole in both my trousers and my leg. It wasn't bleeding much although I could see flesh on the black plastic. My right leg appeared to be all right except for the fact that I couldn't move it or really see it. I was leaning to the left and when I put my left arm on the front passenger seat to steady myself, I saw that I had blood welling from the back of my left hand from a myriad of glass cuts. A glance to my right hand still on the steering wheel showed that that had suffered in the same way. Breathing was difficult - I felt winded and every breath was laboured and hurt my chest. Trying to move to make myself more comfortable, I felt a clicking of at least 2 ribs in my left chest. Apart from the uncomfortable breathing, there wasn't much pain - it was just that I couldn't move my legs - although I found that I could wiggle the toes of both feet.

The lorry that hit me hours after the accident, with the Police measuring the scene. The name of the firm has been removed for legal reasons.

A man suddenly appeared on the passenger side - I don't know if he opened the door or if the passenger window was broken. He said "It's all right - the emergency services are on the way - how are you?"

"As well as can be expected in this sort of situation," I replied, "I'm having a bit of difficulty breathing because I've broken some ribs."

"I've got a mobile phone, do you want to call anyone before the ambulance arrives?"

"Yes, I'll call my son but you'll have to speak - I don't think I can," I gasped.

I gave him the number but as he was dialling I realised that I had better speak to Christopher rather than a stranger. I told him this so he held the phone so I could use it.

"It's me," I said, "listen carefully, I'm not going to be home when I said because I been involved in quite a serious accident. I'm trapped in the car and I think I've broken my leg. Don't worry, I'm not going to die. I'm waiting for the emergency services, contact the college and tell your mother and I'll try to get a message to you as soon as I know what's happening. OK? Don't worry - I'll be all right. Bye"

This was the Ford Mondeo after the crash!!!

I could hear a commotion outside the car. I could see traffic backed up over the hill, someone was saying he would direct traffic but couldn't go near the car, an argument was going on (I've since discovered a motorist couldn't accept the road was closed and wanted to drive round the wreckage - he was dissuaded!). I could hear sirens in the distance and knew something would be happening soon.

An ambulance man and a fireman appeared at about the same time. The ambulance man said "I'm Greg, what's your name?" "Steve Cattell," I replied, then detailed the injuries that I knew I had plus confirmed that I hadn't lost consciousness. I got used to saying this over the next few days. I don't know whether it was to test me and see whether I stuck to the same story each time or whether medical staff just don't talk to each other.

Greg climbed in the car and started to try and get a needle into my arm but was having difficulty in finding a vein. My body had obviously closed down all peripherals due to the severe injuries I had suffered to, but didn't know about as yet to my legs. After removing my watch and id bracelet, it was 3rd time lucky in my left wrist, and a drip was set up.

During all of this, the man who had let me use his mobile phone, who I now know was called Michael, had also climbed into the car and was perched in the wreckage of the seats, glovebox, tapes and a briefcase and was supporting my left shoulder to keep me in an almost upright position. I couldn't do this myself because of my ribs and collarbone. (After I was finally cut out of the car, the fire brigade actually attempted to rescue Michael because they thought he was trapped in the car as well.)

The Fire Brigade now started the process of getting me out. First to go were the front doors, removed using a hydropic machine which broke the hinges open. I was then warned that they were going to spray water on the engine to cool it off and that what I would see would be steam and not smoke. One fireman removed the bonnet by just lifting it off and put it on the grass verge. He then climbed on the engine and started to fold the windscreen back over the top of the roof. The cutting jaws were then brought in to remove the door pillars and a blanket was placed over me to prevent me being cut by any flying metal and glass.

Where the side of the car was removed

In the warm dark of the blanket, I closed my eyes and willed myself to loose consciousness but it didn't work - when they took the blanket away I was still trapped in the car.

There still wasn't too much pain - the ribs and the shoulder were still hurting, the dark area around the hole in my left knee was getting larger and my right leg had cramp. Well, that's what it felt like. It was the same as when you've squeezed into the back of a small car and after a while you feel the need to get out and stretch your legs. I needed to stretch my leg. I kept asking the firemen to push the dashboard back so I could straighten my right leg to relieve the cramp. At this stage I had no idea that I had injured my right leg.

The ambulance man asked how my pain state was and gave me an injection of pain killer. He repeated this a number of times until I reached hospital. I was learning something that would be repeated over the next few weeks - there's no medal for being brave in hospital - if you're offered a pain-killer - take it.

The next stage in getting me out was moving the dashboard away from me or me away from the dashboard. My normal driving position meant that my seat was back almost as far as it would go. One of the fireman asked me whether the seat was electric or not. I replied "Only to make it go up and down." He then asked where the lever was to make the seat go back. I replied that it was between my legs. He said, ominously, "Well, I can't get to that so we'll have to think of something else." I realised that either my seat had moved forward or the dashboard had come so far back that there was no space between the front of my seat and the dashboard. and steering wheel.

"Bring a couple of jacks," yelled the fireman and as if by magic, 2 hydraulic jacks and their associated pipes and machinery appeared, one on either side of the car. They were wedged in what was left of the door frames with one end against the bottom of the frame at the back and the other half way up the dashboard. On the signal they slowly expanded and as they did so pushed the dashboard back. This seemed to be pivoting around the bottom and I was concerned about my ankles and feet. I could still wriggle my toes but not feel anything.

Eventually, my feet could be seen by the rescuers and they saw that they were trapped under the pedals. A cutter was then brought in the cut through the pedals and I was theoretically free. I realised that I could now straighten my right leg which had been causing me all the discomfort. Looking down, the trouser leg was intact, no tears or rents but I could see that the angle of the leg below the knee did not seem right compared to my leg above the knee. I tried to push down but the leg seemed to bend in a place where it wasn't supposed to bend and in a direction it wasn't supposed to bend in. Damn, I thought, I've knackered the right leg as well.

Now I was free but how to get me out of the car? "Don't worry," said one fireman, "we'll lift you out."

"I know I don't look it but I weigh 22 stones," I warned, "and I don't want you lot hurting your backs on my behalf."

"Don't worry," he said again, "there's enough of us around providing we can get at all sides at once. Let's see if we can do anything with this seat. Can we move it at all?"

"If it's still there, there should be a big knob on the side which turns and lowers the seat back," I said.

The fireman felt down to my right and found the knob which did still work. Gently he lowered the back of my seat until it was almost horizontal. This meant I was now lying down almost flat, ready to be moved. Alternately lifting from my shoulders down to my legs, the firemen and ambulance men threaded a canvas stretcher under my body. Every time I was moved, jolts of pain went through my body, particularly in my chest from the broken ribs. Eventually I was on the stretcher and all the rescuers started to move in the car, to my head and feet and all along the right hand side of the car, gripping the edge of the stretcher. On the given signal, I was lifted and then pulled and pushed, depending where they were standing or kneeling, to get me out of the car and then laid on the metal stretcher out of the ambulance. I was out of the car - about an hour or an hour and a half after the accident - you lose track of time in situations like this.

After the seat back was laid down to slide me out

I know they handle a lot of accidents like mine but it did boost my ego a bit when one of the fireman said, as I was lifted into the ambulance, "I don't know who you are, mate, but I'll say something - you've got balls."

Loaded in the ambulance, I was concerned about my briefcase and suitcase in the car, but I needn't have worried, I only had to ask and there they were ready to go to hospital with me. The ambulance man closed the doors and then started making me as comfortable as possible, getting the drip right, strapping me on the stretcher and making all the good reassuring noises that most casualties want to hear. But I'm not most casualties and I told him so. "Listen," I said, "I know you're supposed to do all of this but I spent over 18 years in the RAF Police and have seen all of this before from the other side, I know exactly what happened, I know what's wrong with me, I know what you are doing to me, and what you are going to do with me, I'm not going to die, so can we cut the crap please?

First things first, where are you taking me?"

The ambulance man caught on quickly. "RAF eh? Well, you're in good hands, the driver there spent 12 years as an RAF MT driver. Now, as to where you're going - we're on the border here so we could go to Redditch or Warwick."

I thought quickly. "You'd better take me to Warwick. My wife knows where Warwick is, I don't even know where Redditch is so I'm sure she won't."

Riding in an ambulance on a stretcher when you're rolling all over the place is not very comfortable, especially when you have broken ribs. The journey seemed to take forever, although with blue lights and sirens I doubt if it took more than 10 minutes. We stopped, opened the doors and I'm carried out then wheeled through to the treatment room. I couldn't see a lot, being unable to move any part of my body without pain so the view of the ceiling was all I saw into the A&E. I saw quite a few views of ceilings over the next few weeks, most were very boring but some had nice pictures stuck to them. (If any hospital internal designers read this please note that a lot of your customers can only see the ceiling.)

Soon I was put next to a table and with everyone around me and a count of "one, two, three", I was slid and lifted until I was lying on a hard examination table. Whilst one of the nurses introduced herself, held my hand and told me that I would be all right, a team of others starting cutting my clothes off, examining me and asking the standard question, "have you lost consciousness since the accident?"

"No," I replied, "I've been conscious throughout, I remember everything that's happened. Incidentally, I'm A-Positive blood group. Can someone call my wife to tell her where I am?"

"Don't worry," I was told, "we'll tell her when we can. Let's get you stabilised first."

I was then swarmed over for the next hour or so. I had lost all track of time since the accident. One set of doctors was working on my legs, one set was working on my fluids, drips and the like, and one set was working on my abdomen. "Do you know how you got the puncture wound in your abdomen?" "What puncture wound?" I said. "The one in your abdomen and appears to go right in," they replied.

I was grabbed by everyone and rolled on my side so they could check my back. Luckily that was about the largest bit of my body without anything wrong - amazing when you consider I had a bad back before the crash.

A cuff for taking my blood pressure had been put on my arm. Clever gismo this. I thought, instead of having someone pump it up and hold a stethoscope to my arms it did it all automatically. After having highish blood pressure at every medical I had ever had, I was getting quite worried over the figures that were being called out off the machine, and they kept dropping!!!

Others including a radiographer were taking X-Rays from all angles and looking after my broken ribs, broken collar-bone and possible internal injuries. I was constantly asked the question that I've already said was the number one in the question hit parade "have you lost consciousness since the accident?"

The one break that wasn't treated but constantly cropped up was a broken left big toe because every time anyone passed they seemed to squeeze my big toes to check temperature and pulse and of course it hurt every time they grabbed it. "Oy, careful, I've broken the big toe," I yelled, "Oh sorry," they said every time, "we'll remember about that." But they didn't because they kept grabbing it every time anyone passed my feet.

The Charge Nurse finally found time to get through to my wife who was now home from College after the phone call from my son. She had phoned immediate relatives and her sister was on the way from Thame to add her support. I could only hear part of the conversation as the telephone was on the other side of the busy, noisy room. I could now hear what was wrong with my legs as I couldn't see them as I was flat on my back and unable to raise my head. Apparently I was quite poorly but not in immediate danger and would be operated on later. It wasn't worth my wife coming over tonight as I would be in the operating theatre so tomorrow would be the earliest for her to visit.

Hearing that I would have to have an operation, I told one of the nurses that I was wearing contact lenses. "We'll have to get them out," she said, "but don't worry, we've got a little sucker which will do the job. It's specially designed." It might have been specially designed but unfortunately, no one could find it. "You'll have to do it yourself," I was told. "I can't, " I said, "I can't get my head in the right position and I can't get my hands up to my eyes properly because of the broken ribs and collar bone." "Well, they have to come out so we'll have to do the best we can." said the nurse. So, imagine the scene. I am lying flat on my back, only able to reach up with one arm to my eyes and this movement caused excruciating pain. A nurse is standing over me with 2 specimen tubes filled with saline, trying to catch the lens as I try to pop them out of my eyes. All contact lens wearers will know that sometimes they can be very difficult to get out, while on other occasions they come out when you catch the corner of your eye. Luckily on this occasion, things were going well because they came out easily and we managed to get them in the specimen bottles. These also caused some confusion later.

A number of doctors were hovering around and explaining what they planned to do. Apparently one set of doctors were going to operate on the broken bones in my legs whilst another team were going to check on the puncture wound in my abdomen. There was going to be a slight delay because the operating theatre was in use with a young girl and appendicitis.

A change of plans then occurred when I was asked whether or not I wanted an epidural after the operation. The advantage, I was told, would be that I would have no pain in my legs afterwards, the disadvantage was that, because of the management of the epidural, I would have to be in the ICU, intensive care. Due to my natural dislike of pain, I plumped for the epidural and the ICU.

This resulted in a further telephone call to Marilyn as she had been told which ward I would be in after the operation and this had now changed to the ICU. Credit where credit's due, she was told the full reason for this change and not left to imagine that my condition had taken a turn for the worst. (Although speaking to her weeks later, she didn't believe a word about the reason for the change of plans because of the logic that women have epidurals during childbirth and they aren't placed in the ICU. I must admit that when I had another epidural in Gloucester Hospital after another operation, I was left on the ward so maybe there's something in her view. Maybe I was worse than I imagined and they were putting me at ease as well). "She sends her love, " called the nurse, "any message for her?" "Only that I love her, and that I'm sorry I screwed up for the holiday," I shouted. This referred to the fact that we were due to be going to America for the first 2 weeks in April and although I had yet to be treated, I had realised that the holiday would have to be cancelled or at least postponed. We had been planning it for 18 months and would have been Marilyn and Christopher's first trip to the States.

Blood was ordered for the operation, 9 units, and then a change made to have 2 sent down to A&E where there were pumped into me. I was slid onto a trolley, again causing pain during the move but easing off once I was static and then wheeled through corridors, into a lift and more corridors to the operating theatres. As I went into the theatre, I could see a clock over the door - 7:30pm - I'm missing Coronation Street, thought to myself.

In the theatre the anaesthetist asked me "what do you weigh?" "About 22 stones." "Any idea what that is in kilos?" he said. Bloody metrication, I thought. I was just wishing they would get on with it so I could go to sleep and be free of the pain and the discomfort. Finally I was lifted and slid across again, this time onto the operating table, under a very big bright light, and anaesthetic was injected into the drip on my wrist. I drifted off to sleep.