‘He’s dead! There’s no way he could still be alive under there!’
It was only three miles away but it was an emergency, a road accident at roadworks on a remote country road on the outskirts of the city – and believed to be fatal. Against a strong headwind it would take at least thirty minutes to cycle there. The police station’s motorbike, an unwieldy ten-year old monster fitted with a heavy radio on its rear, was not available. Nor could we persuade the force traffic department to send out a patrol car. The only transport available at the police station were police bicycles – big black heavy-duty things with no gears.
I kitted up in motorcycle gear and wheeled out my own bike. Five minutes later I rounded a blind bend on a narrow, winding road flanked by high hedges and encountered the road accident (encountered is probably the best way to describe my emergency braking to avoid the back end of a huge, stationary truck).
I soon realised that this accident was very different from the usual two-car smash. Firstly, had the truck not been there, I would have plunged into a metre-deep trench dug in the road. Secondly, there were no cars to be seen.
An ambulance arrived from the opposite direction and pulled up at the far end of the roadworks. The trench I would have ridden into was short, and completely covered by the stationary truck that straddled it. Workmen ran to me. That’s when I heard the He’s dead bit. I did the usual things, got the workman with the red and green STOP/GO sign to stand around the bend to stop anyone coming around it and then facing what I had faced. Then the true-to-life version of the “Hello, hello, what’s going on here then…” so beloved of comedians of the time. “What happened?” usually does it.
The only casualty I could see was the truck driver, not physically injured but obviously distressed. He had seen the road works signs, he said. He had braked hard, come around the bend, and then seen the trench with a workman standing in it. Unable to stop, he’d driven right over the man.
Because the trench was covered by the truck there was no way to get into it. One of the men had tried to squeeze underneath but had failed, saying he had seen his colleague lying dead in the trench. The driver didn’t want to back the truck off the trench because that would be disturbing the scene. I made him reverse it.
There was indeed a man lying in the bottom of the trench, with a pickaxe and shovel beside him. He didn’t lie there for much longer though, because when he heard the roar of the truck’s engine he stood up, nursing his head.
It took a while to work out what had happened. These were the days before compulsory hard hats. The very second before the truck came to a stop over him he’d ducked down to shovel dirt. When he stood up straight to see why the world had gone dark, he hit his head on the truck’s engine and knocked himself out.
The ambulance crew treated the workman for concussion – he had a lump on the back of his head the size of half an egg. They wanted to take him away to be looked at but he refused, saying he would lose a day’s pay.