Constable Dave Williams was on his way to a football match when he received the 999 call. The police motorcyclist was diverted from the A5 to the A49 following a report that four vehicles had been in collision.
Dave was there in two minutes flat. “There were people and smoke everywhere.”
As Dave stepped off his bike and ran to the cars, one of them, a Citroen, burst into flames, sparking a blaze in an adjacent car, a Ford C Max. Dave checked the vehicles and noticed, to his horror, that there were people trapped inside the Ford. He radioed for more help.
Sergeant Darren Heyes and Sergeant Stuart Wells were on the scene within minutes.
Darren says: “We got our fire extinguisher from the back of the car and used it....” Nothing. The fire kept on burning. Dave heard a scream: “Get me out, I’m burning.” The driver’s clothes had caught light.
Stuart says: “When we got there, Dave was trying to break the window because the driver of the Ford was trapped. We tried to open the door too, but it was jammed, so we commandeered a 4x4 at the scene and fixed a tow rope to it. Then we tried to wrench the door free.” The rope snapped and the fire grew more intense.
Dave was given a hammer by another passer-by at the scene. He took it to the window of the Ford. “Smoke had filled the cabin of the car and there was no visibility inside.” The heat was also growing intense and Dave’s leathers were starting to burn. “It got hot; really, really hot. But I just patted down my leathers and carried on. I was too focused to notice it.”
The driver of the Ford screamed as his arm started to burn. Dave adds: “It was like a cauldron, we were working as quickly as we could.” Darren and Stuart, meanwhile, stood behind Dave as they worked to free the door, using their colleague as a human shield from the intense heat.
The situation was deteriorating rapidly, with a series of explosions in the Citroen and Ford. Darren made a decision that undoubtedly saved lives.
Darren said: “The traffic was backed up but motorists were starting to do U-turns in the road, so that they could drive away. As they manoeuvred across the carriageway, they made it impossible for the emergency services to get through. So I put the fire brigade on a blue-light escort, from the police, so that they could get through more quickly. It saved them a few minutes.”
Sergeant Andy Jackson arrived and joined in the efforts to help.
Stuart, meanwhile, had climbed into the back of the burning Ford. To his horror, he found a second person trapped inside the vehicle, strapped into the passenger seat. He pulled hard at the seat to free the woman to no avail.
Andy says: “The situation was getting worse very quickly as the fire increased in intensity. Flames were rolling beneath the Citroen and filling the Ford, sweeping up into the footwell and into through the vents.”
The officers also noticed a new hazard. A First Responder who had arrived on scene had given the driver of the Ford an oxygen bottle, placing a cylinder between his legs. A plastic pipe was funnelling oxygen to the driver’s mouth, so that he could breath. The pipe, however, had melted and the oxygen canister had started to fizz. It was ready to explode.
Dave grabbed the cannister and ran to an adjacent field, throwing it as far away as possible before it blew. A series of explosions had already rocked the Citroen and the Ford, as tyres, petrol, paint, upholstery and other combustible components went up in flames.
Darren says: “We were going into the car but it was filled with smoke. We couldn’t see our hands, it was so dense.”
Stuart says: “We thought we were going to watch two people burn to death, that’s what we thought. The driver’s arm was on fire and it was getting worse with every second.”
As the situation became almost-irretrievable, the fire service arrived. Stuart adds: “Another minute, another half a minute and it would have been too late. We’d have lost them.”
Fire crews shot water into the footwell of the car, sending plumes of smoke and steam through the cabin. Stuart, meanwhile, was being sick from his exertions, Dave’s clothes were almost on fire while Stuart and Andy were bilious from inhaling so much acid, brown smoke.
Fire crews were able to free the two trapped people and two air ambulances ferried them to hospital.
Dave says: “In reality, it happened in minutes, though it seemed as though it went on forever. The driver’s legs were trapped, so we’d have been unable to get him out. It was a race against time.”
Afterwards, Stuart and Darren drove to the top of a nearby hill and look down on the scene. Stuart says: “Almost instantaneously both of us thought ‘how the hell did we get out of that?’ It was just great teamwork. We had a common goal. Failure wasn’t an option.
“We had to get those people out, one way or the other, because none of us wanted to see those people burn to death. I didn’t say anything to my missus when I went home. You don’t, it’s just part and parcel of your job. I remember thinking just how awful it would have been if they’d burned to death and it got very, very close. It looked as though that was going to happen.”
Andy adds: “Even when you feel as though you can’t do nothing, there’s always something you can try. Even when it seems absolutely impossible, you have to try again. When I got home, I just took my clothes off and put them in the wash. I’d lost most of my eyebrows. I didn’t say anything to my wife.”
It wasn’t until the officers received commendations from their Chief Constable at a presentation ceremony this September, a whole year later, that their families realised the heroic nature of their endeavours. All four were recognised for showing astounding bravery in a life threatening situation, where they had put their own safety in danger in order to save others.
Andy says: “My wife didn’t know. We were sat there and she just looked at me and shook her head. But we had to do something, that’s what we are paid to do, that’s our job.”
The four officers have been nominated for the Police Bravery Awards, which will take place at the Plaisterers Hall, in London, on October 16. The awards are the annual event at which police officers from across England and Wales are honoured for their actions in keeping the public safe and tackling criminals.
Phillip and Sheila Foster, from Craven Arms, who were in the burning Ford, owe their lives to Stuart, Darren, Andy and Dave. The couple in the other car, however, died from their injuries. William and Alice May Duff, who were both 93, died within 24 hours of one another.
Dave says: “I met Mrs Foster, she was at the inquest. She was very, very grateful. To be fair, she couldn’t remember anything about the incident.
She knew that she came very close and was very lucky and she thanked everyone, from all of the emergency services.”
Stuart adds: “The reward for us was the knowledge that that Mr and Mrs Foster survived. Those two people are alive. Whether or not we receive decorations at the Police Bravery Awards, we won’t celebrate because two other people died that day. We can’t celebrate in any way, shape or form. We’re here to do our jobs, to keep people safe.”
On that remarkable day last September, that’s precisely what Constable Williams and Sergeants Wells, Heyes and Jackson did.