Thirty-years-ago a young probationary policeman from the Western Isles began his first day at work, having been posted to Lerwick after completing eight-weeks training at Tulliallan police college in Fife. It was the day of the Chinook disaster and PETER JOHNSON this week spoke to Norman Sineath about the harrowing experience.
Norman Sineath was 21 when he moved to Lerwick to be a policeman.
He expected life as a policeman in the isles would be much the same as in his native Stornoway, dealing with mostly minor, drink-related incidents. He had no idea he was about to be plunged into a harrowing five-day ordeal as he was put to work identifying victims of the Chinook helicopter tragedy at Sumburgh airport.
He had flown to Shetland the previous evening and been picked up by the chief inspector and driven to his bedsit in St Magnus Street owned by Lexie WIliamson – “a lovely woman who was very welcoming and nice”. Handily, the digs was just around the corner form the police station.
His first morning on the beat was a clear and pleasant November day.
Mr Sineath told The Shetland Times: “I started shift at 8am on the Thursday morning with a tour of the police station then a tour around the town. Brenda Jack was the police constable at the time who took me out and showed me the sights. Just before 11am we got word when we were out in the police car that there was an incident at Sumburgh; that one of the helicopters had possibly got into some trouble. We didn’t really know any more details at that stage.
“I was told by Brenda at the time that this was a reasonably common thing with the amount of flights that come in and warning lights on helicopters, so we made our way down to the airport.
“We were met by Dunrossness police officer Colin Gunn who told us what had happened: that the helicopter had crashed into the sea a couple of miles out. He said it was likely that there may well be fatalities and that myself and Brenda were to go and set up a temporary mortuary just in case.”
Mr Sineath, who now works for the SIC planning department, had no idea what that entailed. His colleague, with four or five years’ police service, knew better what to expect. “We were told where to go, what building to use and to await instructions as to what was happening,” he said.
The building to be used was known as the “finger”, a long thin structure near the perimeter.
Mr Sineath said: “I did not really know what to expect at that time. It was not really till a little while later that word started filtering through to us that there were a lot of fatalities. We were also told that due to the nature of the fatalities that we would need to set up individual cordoned areas for each of the bodies that came in.
“We had to get sandbags and make large circled areas with the sandbags, two or three high, to be able to put the individual bodies when they arrived to us. The reason for this was that due to the nature of the injuries – the rotor blades came through the helicopter and the impact with the sea – the injuries to the bodies would have been consistent with these incidents.
“So we needed to keep the bodies segregated in ways that any individual parts did not get mixed up with other parts. That was my first experience of dead bodies.”
Before going to the mortuary the bodies were seen by a doctor who went through the formality of pronouncing them dead.
By this time the two police officers had been joined by more colleagues from Lerwick who helped transfer the bodies into their various segregated, sandbagged areas.
Mr Sineath added: “We had to take the bodies out of the bags and our task was to try and identify each of the bodies. They all had their survival suits on. There was four or five of us at that stage, we had to go through their survival suits to find their photographic IDs so we could identify them.
“Most of them were in such a condition that it was physically impossible to marry up the photo to what was actually there, but they all had their photo IDs with them so we assumed that that was the person that we had.
“On the first day, we had 19 bodies that were retrieved from the sea that day and taken to us for identification. They all came in and we dealt with them as they were. When we had identified them the next process was another temporary mortuary that was set up in the nearby Bond hanger. That was occupied by the pathologists from a company called Kenyon from London.
“Once we had identified the bodies we would take them over to the Bond hanger and the pathologists would carry out the autopsies and would make the bodies as presentable as possible for identification by relatives. We had to put the bodies in a van one at a time and drive them over.
“I believe from what the pathologists were saying that they all died before the blades came through the copper, which was thankful really.”
Instead of doing the routine eight to four police shift Mr Sinead and colleagues found themselves doing 14 hour shifts – effectively double shifts – for the week after the crash.
“After that you would go home, got to your bedsit and try and sleep but there was so many things going through your mind it was pretty much impossible to sleep. Everybody that was working there and was going home would go back on the next day and we were all the same, kind of running on adrenaline, I suppose.
“Nobody was really able to sleep that whole week because we were down there constantly doing this kind of work. Although you were physically tired you could not really mentally switch off.
“I don’t drink and have never liked alcohol, but through the week, there were periods when drink was available at the airport if folk needed to have a little drink, and that was available for them.”
Near the end of his first day Mr Sineath was asked to go to Broonies Taing pier at Sandwick where an Orkney fishing boat that had picked up three bodies was lying.
He added: “I was charged with going to take the van to uplift the bodies, which was a problem for me at the time because I had only just arrived in Shetland the night before and had no idea where Sandwick was, let alone Broonie’s Taing.
“I got there eventually and I recall the crew were fairly shaken themselves after picking up the bodies from the water, so I took them down to Sumburgh to go through the identification process again.
“When I got back from that, I had a break, a cup of tea in the main concourse at the terminal and the place was heaving with national and international press. I recall sitting there at the table with one of my colleagues and someone from the press coming up and saying they’d seen me to-ing and fro-ing from the temporary mortuary to the Bond hangar and asking me would I leave the Bond hangar door open so that they could take long zoom lens photos of what was going on in the hangar, which I found quite distressing at the time.
“From days two to five the bodies still came in but they came in on a slower basis and they had been in the sea for two, three, four or five days. As well as the injuries they had received, the sea life had also started to get to the bodies…
“On the sixth day Pushp Vaid and Eric Morrans (the two survivors) were still in the Gilbert Bain and had a police presence to stop the national press getting access to them, so I was sent up to the hospital for a change of scene I think.
“When I got there my colleagues who had been there told us to check everyone’s ID because members of the press had managed to get white coats and stethoscopes and were chancing their arm trying to get photos of the two survivors.
“After it was over we just went back to normal shift work.”
A week or two after the tragedy Mr Sineath and colleagues were sitting in the police station muster room when the force welfare officer came up to speak to them. Some of the officers had been in the mortuary pretty much all the time and others were working more in the incident room.
Mr Sineath said: “All we were told at that stage was that it may well be that years down the line, anytime between now and the next 20 to 30 years time we could end up with some form of depression, stress, anxiety, various nervous breakdowns to whatever degrees.
“He told us this because this was what had happened in previous incidents. There was a big crash in Manchester airport in the mid 1970s and 10 years later officers who had dealt with the folk and dealt with that incident were having breakdowns relating to that, and it was likely that the same would happen to us. We thought, ‘well that’s not a very nice prospect’.
“I have been fortunate in that it has not really affected me that way. I know that through the week, there were officers with many years service in the police who were having trouble dealing with what they had to deal with, but I don’t think, whether it was your first day in the job, as it was mine, or whether you had 20 years’ service, it does not make any difference. It was not so much that there was 45 bodies – it was the nature of the injuries that was distressing.
“It was my first time I had seen a body and other officers had seen though their time the normal work with bodies you would see through a police career, but nobody could have been expected to deal with the scale of what had happened.”
Mr Sineath left the police five years later when he was due to be transferred to another constabulary area. But he and his wife Wilma, from Harris, decided that they wanted to stay in Shetland.
His next job was working as a shift supervisor for Shell fixed wing flights at Sumburgh. “I was in and out of the building we had used as a temporary mortuary on a daily basis. Whether doing that had a positive effect on me I don’t know, but I have been fortunate enough that I have not suffered mentally from the experience.
“I do know that some of my colleagues have found it difficult to cope since then. Some of them have had recurring nightmares”.
After the tragedy Mr Sineath came across deaths in road traffic accidents and people who had died in fires but the experience working with the Chinook tragedy was “almost surreal”. He said: “It was just a job, a situation that I and my shift colleagues found ourselves in and we just had to get on with it.”
He also believes there is no way that a probationer, let alone someone on their first day, would be anywhere near the situation if it happened nowadays.
He added: “Every anniversary, or approaching the anniversary every year, it brings me back to that period and my over-riding thought is with the relatives and families of the folk who died and how they are, not really so much as to what me and my colleagues had to go through.
“My wife and I have been been together for 35 years and she has been a fantastic support for me over the years, at this time of year when I am reflective over the situation.”
Mr Sineath recently became involved in setting up the Sumburgh memorial for the Chinook and the other helicopter tragedies. Dave Ellis, who was a winchman on Oscar Charlie and Nigel Flaws had been contacted by one of the relatives who was a regular visitor to Sumburgh but had no memorial to visit.
He hopes that this will provide some form of comfort or at least a focal point for the relatives of the victims who come to Sumburgh to pay their respects.