The revelation a few days ago that Andreas Lubitz, co-pilot of Germanwings flight 4U 9525, deliberately crashed the Airbus 320 killing himself and 149 innocent passengers was almost beyond comprehension.
The bond of trust between pilot and passengers in their care, which we all take for granted, broken in the most cataclysmic way. The trauma the families of the men, women, children and babies killed in the crash must be overwhelming and the impact of the event will remain with them forever.
If, as it seems, the pilot decided to take his own life, then he chose a singularly cruel and barbaric way to do it by taking with him so many wholly innocent people. Children returning from a school exchange, a young man starting a new job, babies just months old and so many, many others.
It was an act of supreme wilful cowardice and selfishness.
For me, today’s events brought back memories of day almost six years ago, which I have tried to put to the back of my mind.
My wife and baby son, then under two, and I had rented a holiday cottage in Wales for spring break. On the afternoon of Wednesday May 20th 2009 we were on our way back to the cottage after a morning out. We were driving down a windy, busy road called The Heads of The Valley road.
My wife was driving our Toyata Yaris. Suddenly, without any warning, pieces of debris came flying down the road. At the same moment, the break lights from the small car in front came on, as did those of a 40 tonne lorry in front of it. We all did emergency stops.
It had all happened in the fraction of a second. Literally in the blink of an eye. A car had crossed from the oncoming carriageway. I jumped out of the car and ran round past the lorry, to see if I could help.
Seconds later I was joined by a man who’d stopped on the opposite ran towards me. “Have you phoned 999,” I asked, as I hadn’t even had time to pick up my mobile.
“Yes,” he said. “But they won’t be able to do much.” The vehicle that had crossed the carriageway was nowhere to be seen. Then the true horror of the crash became apparent. The car couldn’t be seen. In an instant it was almost certain that no one in the vehicle could have survived. It was completely underneath the lorry. I felt almost sick. My mind was racing. “Had there been children in the car? Could anyone be in there?”
Tragically it seemed unlikely. My thoughts turned to the living. The driver of the lorry, a man in his late 50s, was slowly climbing down from his cab. He was dazed, obviously in shock and, more worryingly, clutching his chest.
“I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t do anything,” he was saying. “It’s ok,” I told him. “I know. It was all so fast.” I took him over to a road barrier by the edge of the road. With the knowledge that almost certainly he was the only survivor from the two vehicles involved in the accident, his well-being became my prime concern.
We were joined by a young woman from the car between us and the lorry. She was a school teacher on her way home from work. We kept reassuring the driver, trying to keep him as calm as possible. It sounds like a cliché, but it was one of those moments where looking after the living, took precedence over anything, particularly the dead.
Within ten minutes, the first of many sirens began echoing through the valley. The first to arrive was a policeman. He looked about 19 and was on his own. He looked stunned – and unsure, as you would be, to know what to do first.
I gave him the few details I knew. Within another minute several fire engines arrived followed by an ambulance. Then another. By the time I walked back to our car where my wife and son were, there were around a dozen emergency service vehicles at the scene. It was probably only about ten minutes since the crash had happened.
A different policeman came over to our car and took our details and said they’d probably be in touch for statement. We were allowed to turn the car around and head back the way we’d come and find our way home.
We spoke little on the journey home. We were stunned. It was the fragility of life. One minute a person, or some people, had been driving along a road, the next minute something had happened – a burst tyre, a seizure, a blackout – and they had crashed into a huge lorry and their car had been crushed, like a tin can or a car that had been crushed at a scrap yard.
Then there was the thought of how lucky we’d been. A second later then the car wouldn’t have hit a 32 tonne lorry, it would have hit the woman in the small car in front of us. A second after that, it would have been us. It was a profoundly sobering thought.
That evening I scoured the internet for any reports of the accident in local papers, BBC Online and the local police website’s media pages. In the forefront of my mind was the thought that there could have been a family in the car, and, if there had been, then could I have done anything?
It sounds callous, but it was almost a relief to finally discover, later that same day that there had just been one person killed in the accident. Obviously a tragedy for their family, but it could have been so much worse.
Two days later the person who died in the accident was identified by police as a 44-year-old man called Andreas Eul from nearby Brynmawr.
In the following weeks and months I thought a lot about Andreas Eul. Where had he been travelling to that day? What had happened to cause his car to cross from the carriageway he was travelling along and into the path of a lorry into which he crashed and lost his life? I thought about his family.
I also thought about those few seconds. Those few seconds which could have seen his car not hit the lorry, which was arguably better placed to deal with the impact of another vehicle in a 80mph smash, than ours would have been or that of the young teacher.
Having seen the result of the impact, then it was clear to me that had our small car been hit head on then we would have been extremely unlikely to have survived.
The inquest into the death of Andreas Eul took place in late August and thanks to Google Alerts, I was emailed links to newspaper articles about it. I was shocked as I read the report.
It transpired that Andreas Eul had deliberately caused the accident in order to take his own life. The police believed he’d been driving his Ford Escort at around 90mph at the moment of impact and, as the driver of the lorry, said he’d been driving about 45 mph as he came down the hill, the impact between the two vehicles would have been around 135mph.
Mercifully, his death was instant. He’d been a voluntary patient at a mental health unit and had been given day leave in order to open a bank account. He had, it was revealed, a history of mental illness and had tried to take his life on more than one occasion. It was a sad end to a troubled life. I feel sad for his family and sad that he wasn’t able to beat whatever made him do what he did.
It was also a particularly selfish way to commit suicide. Fortunately the driver of the HGV had suffered no major physical harm from the accident but had been treated for shock and had also suffered sleepless nights following the accident.
It could have been so different. The inquest found that Mr Eul had deliberately driven with the intention of his own life, but had he thought about those also affected, particularly the driver of the vehicle he crashed into?
I was – and still am to a degree – haunted by the some things which I know I will never learn the answers to. Principally among them is whether he chose to drive into the HGV because he thought he made most chance of killing himself and no one else? Or had it just been our lucky day that he chose not to cross the carriageway a few second later. Had he wanted to take the lives of others at the same time?
Suicide is sad. Unbelievably sad. And sad in a way that is different from other types of death. I know this from personal experience. Six years ago last month one of my dearest and closest friends took his own life. I have seen and still see the impact on his family. My friend involved no one else directly in his final moments yet the grief he caused will never go away.
Time, they say, heals. This may be true to some degree, yet when someone takes their own life the whys and what ifs can never be answered. And the guilt for those of us left, will never really heal, despite the passing of years.
I have spent many reflective moments pondering this and wondered what happened to my friend and how things could have been. I have analysed in minute detail our last conversations, read and re-read final emails and events of the weeks, months and year prior to his death.
At times you can feel overwhelmed by the thought that you should have spotted something and seen it coming. You talk to family and mutual friends and have the same conversation. Yet, the reality was, and is, and the conclusion I have come to over recent years, is that sometimes you just can’t predict how people will behave, and even if you could, you cannot be with them keeping them safe every moment.
Ultimately, the root of almost all suicides is some form of mental illness, sometimes incredibly mild, and sometimes incredibly brief. In many of the cases of suicide I have heard of, the person involved doesn’t have a long history of depression – or if they have, it is deeply hidden.
In the case of my friend, he showed no outward sign of great stress or depression. He’d dealt with the sort of personal knocks that life sometimes throws at us and the financial worries that most people have faced at some point.
Yet ultimately, the failure of a relationship (not a first for him) triggered something that led him to take a course of action which led to his death.
I miss my friend every day and a part of me will always feel guilty that I wasn’t able prevent what he did, even though, deep down, I know he knew how much we all thought of him. I really believe that he knew how much his family and friends loved him. He must have known we would have helped him through whatever difficulties he ultimately decided were just too much to deal with. He’d received friendship, love and support at other times in his life, but this time, for whatever reason, he decided not to ask for for help, or to give us time to spot that he was in desperate need of it.
Close to one in five people will suffer from depression at some point in their life, and while fortunately, most people recover fully, some with medication and some without, it can go undiagnosed until something catastrophic happens. Suicide is now the biggest killer of young men in the UK. The highest rate is in the male age bracket of 30-44 where suicide accounts for more deaths than road accidents, murder and HIV/Aids combined.
The focus the actions of pilot Andreas Lubitz has focussed on his mental state and alleged history of depression. Why was this man allowed to fly an aircraft full of passengers? screamed the headlines. Yet only a small proportion of people with depression take their own lives, and mercifully few of them do it in a way which leads to the death of others, particularly on the scale seen in the Germanwings crash.
Every day people with depression drive buses, serve in supermarkets, work in the health service and in the military. Many great and clever people suffered from depression: from history: Winston Churchill, Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens and from the arts: Stephen Fry, David Walliams and Johnny Depp.
Sometimes people do things that are just unpredictable and without giving any hint that they are even contemplating it. The grief of the families of passengers on flight 9525 is incalculable. People want someone to blame: the airline, the doctors? But the sad truth is, it is probable, that no one could have foreseen the horrific actions of Anreas Lubitz.
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(c) Steve Clark 2015. All Rights Reserved.