The hairs are standing up on the back of my neck now, as they do every time I recall this story. It’s been 20 years since it happened, but let me tell you now – something like this doesn’t go away. It never leaves you.
This is also the first time I’ve ever told this to an audience wider than the handful of people who know me, or have worked with me. In fact these words sat in draft for many years, waiting for the right time. So here it goes.
My story begins just after I’d become area manager of a local authority’s leisure centres. I remember the day; it was mid-April, a Thursday – an ordinary day, just like any other. I came home at about 5pm, ate, watched TV, then went to bed at around 10.30pm.
At 11.15pm the phone rang. In our house the phone never rings that late, so I knew immediately that something was wrong.
It was the manager of one of the leisure centres I was responsible for: “Something serious has happened, I can’t tell you anymore. Just get over here”.
The journey was 23 miles from where I lived. I remember nothing of it, other than being alarmed by the speedometer – with heightened anxiety I probably wasn’t in a fit state to drive.
When I arrived, a police inspector was in my office. Something was indeed very seriously wrong. He told me a young girl, let’s call her ‘K’, was in hospital with serious head injuries and our sports hall was now officially a crime scene.
This is as real as it gets
When you arrive at work and the police tell you a tragic accident has happened – on your watch – health and safety becomes very, very real. Almost surreal you could say.
Here’s what happened. That evening we’d hosted a concert in the sports hall, where moveable tiered seating is extended for the audience. They access these seats either from ground-floor level or a balcony above. After the concert, two members of staff helped dismantle the setup, putting the seating back into a recess in the wall where it was stored.
While they were on the balcony, my two colleagues got a call for help from reception. They responded, switched off the lights and left the balcony – leaving the doors unlocked, and critically failing to close and lock three gates on the balcony that gave access to the tiered seating.
Seating which was no longer in place.
During the two or three minutes they were away, a group of teenagers got onto the darkened balcony. One of them, K, expecting to lean on a rail fell five metres through the open gate onto the sports hall floor. She suffered major head injuries and was transferred immediately to the regional trauma unit.
Helpless, I drove home after finding all this out and I have to admit I cried, for K and for myself. My director and I spent Friday, Saturday and Sunday feeling similarly despondent. Other than the wellbeing of K, our only topic of conversation was how long we were going to prison for.
It really was that serious.
The call everyone dreads
A deeply chilling moment happens after the lead inspector from the HSE finishes their questions – about how you manage safety, where it features on the agenda, your documentation, etc.
They look at you and say ‘now I’m going to talk to the people who work with you and find out what really goes on.’ That’s chilling because you simply don’t know what people will say.
Fortunately, we had everything in order but put yourself in my position, back then. Like me, you care about your work; you ‘cross the Ts and dot the Is’, but what really goes on in your organisation when it comes to safety? How do your people really behave when they’re not being watched? How severe is the disconnect between what people say and what they do?
These are issues worth pondering because the truth will come out. And it’s better to unearth root causes before they inevitably build up into something serious – injury...or worse.
On the following Monday morning, the police called again. I was back at work with my shell-shocked colleagues at the time, all of us trying woefully to focus on business as usual in a very surreal atmosphere.
It was then that they told us the parents of K had turned off their daughter’s life support machine.
I had now killed a teenage girl.
An investigation followed
Technically, I was three stages away from direct involvement, but let me tell you, it doesn’t feel that way. Not then. Not now. It lives with you and you feel personally responsible.
When the HSE steps in, you realise that things are firmly beyond your control. Less than 24 hours later I was informed that I would be interviewed and that I was entitled to legal representation. I was also alone – my employer couldn’t represent me or anyone else involved, because they could potentially launch their own case against us.
By now there was a great deal of media interest from the BBC and ITV regional news on-site, plus national newspapers. The leisure centre had also been attacked by local youths – presumably friends of K.
After the HSE’s enquiries you might think things would return to normal, but accidents have far-reaching effects. I felt very exposed and responsible for what happened, so I avoided going to the town where the leisure centre was, because I couldn’t bear meeting people who knew me or my connection to the accident.
In autumn, the call from the coroner came. We would be face-to-face with K’s family and friends. Isolated and exposed in the coroners’ court, my two colleagues had to answer questions from the jury – people like you and me, who ask very pointed questions, which you must answer and to whom you must defend your actions.
What’s doubly sad about this whole story is that my colleagues were two of the most diligent people you could ever come across in terms of safety and trying to do things right. And within three months they’d gone because they couldn’t face the daily reminder of what they’d found – a girl lying prone on the floor with a serious, fatal head injury.
The verdict was misadventure
Within a matter of weeks, a summons arrived from the magistrates’ court. Our employer had already pleaded guilty, and although the HSE inspector (for the prosecution) spoke favourably about our operation, the fine was £10,000 plus costs.
I believe it took me between five to seven years to reach a point where I wasn’t thinking about K’s accident every single day. It was over 10 years until I actually spoke to anyone other than the HSE in any detail about these events – and that includes my family.
I’m told the two members of staff directly involved aren’t the vibrant personalities they once were.
Stories are powerful
One of the few positive things to come out of my experience is that me telling my story like this (on the handful of occasions I’ve felt up to it) gives other people permission to tell theirs. It truly opens the floor for groups in our training sessions and workshops.
Stories are powerful, they build trust and create bonds between people who say, ‘Yes, I’ve been there too.’ That’s what we build into everything we do at Tribe, whether that’s in emotive, sticky messages or live drama, moving staff through the voices of victims.
It’s impossible to recreate the profound, life-changing effect that going through a horrific incident like this has on you. It singularly crystalised why I do what I do now – preventing people getting into the situation I found myself in, all those years ago.
So share them
Encourage people who have stories like this to speak up. And the rest of us should listen to what victims, relatives, co-workers and friends have to say. Challenge those unhelpful thoughts we all have: ‘Oh, this would never happen to me… I reckon I could cope if it did’ – because when accidents happen, it’s easy to overestimate your ability to deal with things - trust me.
Tragic accidents have long-lasting, unpredictable effects. And that’s if you’re ‘lucky’ enough to be left behind to pick up the pieces. Because let’s not forget, when they do happen – and they will – real people get hurt. People like K, with friends and family, and hopes and dreams just like yours.
Colin Hewson is consultant at Tribe Culture Change
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