THE driver of the bin lorry who lost control of his vehicle in a tragedy that claimed the lives of six people yesterday recalled the moment he blacked out “like a light switch” while at the wheel.
Harry Clarke told a fatal accident inquiry he remembered seeing Christmas lights in Glasgow city centre but that his next memory was of being helped from the wreckage of his truck after it had crashed into the Millennium Hotel.
On an emotionally charged day at the inquiry, now in its fifth week, Mr Clarke declined to answer a series of questions about his medical records, employment records and attendance rates. Relatives of those killed left the court or broke down crying as they heard Mr Clarke begin his stint in the witness box by refusing to respond to the inquiry’s questions.
But during the final 50 minutes when Solicitor General Lesley Thomson focused on events leading up the incident on 22 December last year, he spoke of his routine that day and how he was feeling “brand new”.
The 58-year-old, the last witness to appear at the FAI, was in the witness box for nearly three and a half hours at a packed Court No5 in Glasgow Sheriff Court. He and his crew – Matthew Telford and Henry Toal – were their “normal selves” as they chatted about Christmas during the afternoon waste collection trip in the city centre.
He told the inquiry he had a piece and biscuits on his morning break before eating a chicken and mushroom Pot Noodle, a packet of crisps and a biscuit for lunch.
As Ms Thomson turned to the events as the bin lorry was on Queen Street, Mr Clarke at times paused and took deep breaths during his reply.
“Everything was OK, I saw the Christmas lights in the distance, and the next minute… it was like a light switch,” he said.
The driver said the next thing he remembered was “being attached to the hotel” – the Millennium Hotel in George Square where the truck came to rest.
He said: “I think I remember Matt shouting ‘Harry, wake up’. It was as if he was a mile in the distance. I came to and I didn’t know what had happened to me, I couldn’t understand it.
“Matt was there, I said ‘Matt, what happened?’ and he couldn’t talk to me. Wee Henry, he was in tears apparently, which you can understand.” After the crash, he said he remembered being helped out from the truck by a firemen and being attended to by an off-duty nurse. He said: “I looked round about… I didn’t know what had happened. My speech was slurred. I knew who people were but I was very confused.”
The day’s proceedings began at 11am with an hour’s legal discussion among Sheriff John Beckett QC, Mr Clarke’s lawyer, Paul Reid, and counsel representing the families.
Mr Reid had asked for an adjournment, claiming that the experience would be “traumatic” for his client. The sheriff, however, ruled that there was a “very substantial public interest” which meant the inquiry should continue.
Turning to the court, he acknowledged that there would be “very strong feelings” in the room and appealed to everyone for their continued “order and decorum”.
Mr Clarke then entered the stand and took the oath before Sheriff Beckett and Mr Reid told him he did not have to give any responses that might incriminate him as he could face prosecution by the families of the victims.
The advice was repeated at several points during the day.
After confirming his identity, age and occupation, Mr Clarke then declined to answer the majority of Ms Thomson’s questions over the next three and a half hours.
At one point, she asked him: “Do you understand that by choosing not to answer you are putting yourself first?” Mr Clarke replied: “I wouldn’t agree with that.”
The inquiry has heard that Mr Clarke has a history of dizzy spells and fainting which he failed to disclose to the DVLA and on job application forms.
But as Ms Thomson put various productions before him detailing his medical background and previous jobs, he said either “I don’t want to answer that question” or “No comment.”
He was questioned about an incident on 7 April 2010 when he is said to have blacked out at the wheel of a bus in the city.
He was asked: “Do you recollect an incident where paramedics came to see you after a medical incident on a bus?” Mr Clarke said he did not want to answer.
The inquiry was adjourned until today when Mr Clarke will continue giving evidence.