The first emergency worker on the scene of the Tebay rail accident has revealed how he first thought he was responding to a car crash.
Sean Hevey, a firefighter with 21 years’ experience, raced to the scene with colleagues after the 999 call came in.
The information was vague and they thought they were heading to the type of scenario fire crews routinely deal with.
But for Mr Hevey, who is still based at Kendal Fire Station where he was lead firefighter ten years ago, it soon became clear that it wasn’t.
He said: “We got the call about a vehicle off the motorway and I thought we were going to a road traffic collision.
“We presumed that a car had come off the M6 and come to rest on the track below - that is what I was prepared for dealing with.”
Eleven firefighters from Kendal and nearby Shap were soon on the scene, along with paramedics and police.
They scoured the area looking for a car but could find none. And then a bloodied man appeared out of the darkness.
“We were flagged down by someone. I was met with a person covered in blood. He said: ‘Don’t go down there, it’s absolute carnage’.
“But, of course, we had to go down to see if anyone needed help and deal with whatever we found. More people were coming off the railway but they weren’t making sense. They were in shock.”
As Mr Hevey walked closer to the fatally-injured workers, he began to hear their mobile phones ringing.
“We went to see what we could do and we found a couple of the guys deceased. There was nothing we could do for them.
“There was no one to be released. Phones were ringing on some of the people. One or two were walking wounded. It was very surreal because there were two guys sat having a cigarette who had just finished cutting up a section of the track and they had just stepped off the track before the wagon came past.
“They were sat there in disbelief having just seen the carnage, probably seconds from being involved themselves.
“We had a walk down the track to see if we could see the wagon but it had carried on running.”
As the injured were taken to hospital, the fire crews played a vital role in preserving what was a large crime scene.
It would be two hours before health and safety investigators and British Transport Police arrived at the isolated location.
Mr Hevey explained: “We did a roll call to make sure we had identified everyone who had been working on the track and, when we were satisfied that we had everyone, we cordoned off the area and stayed on the scene. We seemed to be there on our own for a long time. We must have been there for two hours making sure nothing could be interfered with.
“The sun started rising and the scene was very graphic. We wanted to protect the men’s dignity so we covered them up and made sure people couldn’t start going down there.”
By 9am, the firefighters had returned to their bases, although the horror of the previous hours would remain with them all.
A “critical incident de-brief” was held to see whether any of the first responders required counselling.
Mr Hevey said: “It is part of our job to respond to these incidents, but it’s not pleasant side of the job, so it’s good to talk. The best counselling is around the brew table afterwards to reflect on the incident.”
Looking back on the ten years which have passed, he added: “I have attended a lot of incidents and, if I go through Tebay, it still comes back to me. It’s not the type of incident you want to see too many of in your career. My condolences go out to the families.”