Village left in shock at Gillingham helicopter tragedy
11:25 15 March 2014
People living close to the Norfolk helicopter crash spoke of their conflicting emotions of horror at the tragedy and relief that the consequences were not far worse.
Four people were killed when a helicopter plunged into a field in heavy fog off the A143 Yarmouth Road in Gillingham, near Beccles.
However, as the fog lifted yesterday afternoon it became clear that the crash was close to a busy fast-food restaurant, petrol station and family homes.
The AgustaWestland AW139 was taking off from Gillingham Hall, the home of Lord Ballyedmond - Edward Haughey - one of the passengers, at around 7.30pm on Thursday.
It came down moments later less than 100 yards from McDonald’s and the BP Garage on the Gillingham roundabout.
Mother-of-three Diane Smith, who lives with her family at Forge Grove, a housing estate a stones throw away from the crash site, said she was stunned and saddened by the deaths, but said it was a miracle that no-one else was killed.
She said: “It is such a tragic accident and awful to hear about it happening so close to your home. We are a small village, but there are a lot of families who live here and it doesn’t bear to think what would have happened if it had crashed elsewhere.”
The other victims have been named as Declan Small, 42, a site foreman for Lord Ballyedmond’s company Norbrook Pharmaceuticals, based in Newry, Northern Ireland, Captain Carl Dickerson and Captain Lee Hoyle, both pilots.
Detectives with specialist skills from the Norfolk and Suffolk Major Investigation Team last night said that they were satisfied that there were no suspicious circumstances surrounding the incident.
The Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) yesterday took over as the lead investigators of the scene and will continue with their detailed inquiries into the cause of the crash this weekend.
James Avery, 35, from Hopton, was first on the scene and ran into McDonalds telling staff to call the emergency services.
He said: “I was outside having a cup of tea when I heard it take off across the road. It hovered and then flew across the road from the right to the left. After about 30 seconds I heard a loud bang and straight after the sounds of a turbine engine winding down.
“Me and my friend ran across the road to where we thought it went down but because of the heavy fog we couldn’t see anything at all.
“Further up the road we saw some strobe lights which we believe were the landing pads but as we walked away they went off and the noise suddenly stopped.”
Police cordoned off around 150-200 square metres of land, including ploughed fields, along with part of the A146, A143 and Raveningham Road, which surround the area where the helicopter landed.
The bodies were removed from the helicopter at about 2pm yesterday. The helicopter will not be moved until a forensic investigation has taken place.
Chief Inspector Stuart Armes from Norfolk Police was unable to confirm that passengers put out a distress call or whether the foggy weather conditions played a part in the accident.
He said extra manpower had been called in from other counties and that officers were working to reopen the roads as soon as possible, which were closed due to concerns over scattered debris.
He said: “I imagine people are watching the news and are concerned about what is happening. This is a very, very rare incident and is something that we have to do our best to deal with.”
Jimmy Tuttle, 40, was working at his wood yard on the old Yarmouth Road in Gillingham around 7.15pm when he saw the helicopter come into sight above him.
“I heard the helicopter above me and then it came into sight at a really funny angle. I thought it was rather odd as it was pitching at about 45 degrees. The engine sounded like it was struggling, it didn’t seem right. I followed it across the fields and then it went out of sight, I assumed it had landed.
“I’ve seen the helicopter several times as it is often seen buzzing around. I knew straight away which helicopter it was.”
Lorraine Greenwood, 49, lives about 100 yards away from Gillingham Hall, and was at home at the time of the crash.
She said: “I saw a lot of police activity coming from Beccles and going back again and then I saw them at the side of the hall entrance. I could hear two helicopters flying around too but I couldn’t see anything because it was too foggy.
“My first thought was that there had been a break-in at the hall and I was worried because I live so close. It is very sad for everyone on the helicopter. I feel lucky because it crashed so close to my house and it could have been a lot worse.”
Miss Greenwood said Lord Ballyedmond flied in every Thursday.
She said: “The helicopter flies right over my garden fence. I’ve never seen him flying anything other than a blue and white helicopter. He keeps himself to himself and because he flies in we never really see him.”
Family liaison officers are providing support to relatives of the dead men.
Did you witness the crash? Do you want to pay tribute to any of the victims? Contact Kathryn Bradley on 01502 525832 or email firstname.lastname@example.org