AT 9.30PM on Friday, the Clutha bar was getting busy. For regular customer Martin Cowan, a bit too busy. “People were streaming in,” he recalled. “I had watched the first episode of Coronation Street and decided to treat myself to a glass of wine. It was getting very crowded. It’s small and claustrophobic, at least 150 years old and has a very low ceiling. So I decided to go home.”
As Cowan left, more people were arriving at the landmark pub on the shores of the Clyde, a haunt for socialists, folkies, music fans and people who remember the area before it became a desirable arrondissement called Merchant City.
Esperanza, a Glasgow-based ska band, were playing that night and around 120 people jammed into the small space to enjoy their infectious Jamaican-inspired beats. On the other side of the horseshoe-shaped bar from the stage, regulars took up residence in their favourite seats.
At 10.25pm there was a whooshing noise. It was barely audible above the nine-piece band, traffic and the Friday night racket of a pub full of people warming up for Christmas.
The manager was standing behind the gantry, pulling a pint. The bar saved him: the force of the impact knocked him to the ground and the falling rafters hit the ground.
Customer Grace MacLean said: “There was no bang. There was no explosion. Then there was some smoke – what seemed like smoke – so the band were laughing and we were all joking that the band had made the roof come down. They carried on playing.
“Then it started to come down more and someone started screaming and then the whole pub filled with dust. You couldn’t see anything, you couldn’t breathe.”
William Byrne had travelled in from Coatbridge to see Esperanza. It was only his second time at the Clutha. He recalls a scream, a couple of seconds of quiet, then the roof and the gantry crashing in on itself. “We could only see half of the bar because of the dust. The lights went out and the band stopped playing. We didn’t find out what had happened until we got outside.”
Glaswegians pride themselves on pulling together in a crisis and on Friday they raced to help without hesitation or fear for their own safety. Passersby rushed towards what could have been a potentially explosive situation to assist the dazed and injured. They formed a human chain, moving the unconscious out of the dangerously unstable building to the safety of the street and the emergency services.
Last night, Gordon Matheson, leader of Glasgow City Council, paid an emotional tribute to their courage and selflessness. “Above all, I am proud of the city of Glasgow. When there is trouble and people need assistance, the people of Glasgow head towards these situations,” he said.
Among those who joined the rescue effort was Labour MP Jim Murphy, who was driving past when he saw people “clambering out” of the bar. He said: “There were people with injuries. Bad gashes to the head. Some were unconscious. I don’t know how many. The helicopter was inside the pub. It’s a mess. I could only get a yard or two inside. I helped carry people out. It’s a horrible, horrible scene, but well done to the folk who were here.”
Within minutes, the emergency services were on the scene. The walking wounded were led into ambulances, the stunned survivors such as Byrne taken across the road to a Holiday Inn hotel. There, they watched the rescue unfold on a plasma screen TV.
Byrne called his wife. “When I told her I was in the Holiday Inn because a helicopter had landed on the pub, she didn’t believe me. Who would? My reaction would be, what’s the punchline?”
His phone pinged with a text from his 18-year-old daughter, telling him that a helicopter had crashed into a bar. He called right back to tell her he knew; he had been there when it happened. “No-one expects to go on a Friday night out and have a helicopter crash into the pub. It’s preposterous.”
Retired firefighter Edward Waltham ran into the pub to help with the rescue effort. “I helped grab a couple of people. One gentleman in particular was completely covered in dust, had very shallow breathing and appeared to be quite badly injured,” he told the BBC.
“My initial reaction for him from my experience was to try not to move him because he had been in a crush situation.
“It was chaotic, but initially people were in a state of disbelief because there wasn’t any screaming or shouting at first. But as we were lying there, other people were literally being pulled out of the pub and more or less thrown on top of us.”
He said he had stayed in another pub to finish a drink while his friend had gone on ahead to the Clutha. “It was only because I chose to finish that beer off that I wasn’t in the bar as well,” he said.
The bar manager left the rescue effort to take firefighters down to the basement to turn off the gas. Priests from nearby St Andrew’s Cathedral came along to speak to the injured and their relatives. But because of the lack of noise on impact, and because there was no fire, smoke or strong smell, the rest of Glasgow carried on with Friday night.
Just half a mile away, Maggie Lennon was impervious to the tragedy unfolding on her doorstep. “I heard the sirens,” she recalls. “I thought it was just another Friday night in the east end of Glasgow.”
The band all got out of the building safely. The drummer, Jason Good, posted on Facebook: “A police helicopter crashed into the gig we played tonight. Still looking for friends.”
Later, watching the rescue unfold on TV, he added: “While we watch the news to see if we can find out if the mates that cannot be accounted for are OK, there are little twats waving and smiling at the TV cameras. What the f**k world are we living in?”
Local resident Paul Dundas, 26, heard a bang, saw a plume of dust and ran down to help. “People were covered in blood and dust. Other people were dragging them away from the bar and trying to get them out,” he said. “Everyone was in shock, but people were helping and asking strangers if they were OK. I saw a couple help each other clean up their faces.”
Those with minor injuries were treated in the Holiday Inn. Some 28 were taken to Glasgow Royal Infirmary, Victoria Infirmary and Western Infirmary. The police sealed the area, then erected screens around the building. As the night wore on and the media joined the emergency services in Stockwell Street, dawn broke with the rescue still in process.
Brian Nugent, the tenant of The Crypt, a charity store next door to the bar, said he had heard reports of a helicopter crashing in the Clutha, but had not believed it. “I woke up at 8am, turned on the TV and saw a fireman on my roof. That’s when I realised this was more serious than I thought.”
Nugent went down to Stockwell Street to check in with friends and neighbours. He bumped into the bar manager hopping around on crutches – it turned out he had broken his foot the night before. Nugent said: “I must know 20 people who are in hospital.”
Sharon Parry, from nearby hairdresser Scrimshaws, opened her salon but was told by the police halfway through the morning that they needed to turn off the water. There were customers sitting in the salon with their hair in foils. “If necessary, we will just march them across the car park to our pal Tony’s place to rinse them off,” she said.
A weak winter sun shone through the glass dome of the mosque across the Clyde. As the search and rescue operation continued, along the road in St Andrew’s Cathedral MEPs Anas Sarwar and Margaret Curran and Matheson gathered for a St Andrew’s Day mass for those involved in the crash.
Later, Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon arrived at the police barrier for a live interview. Glasgow, she told STV’s John McKay, had pulled together.
From the pavement, Donna Downie watched with her husband and son Ryan. The Three-year-old asked for juice and hopped around in his frog wellies. “We passed the Clutha all the time. I always said I’d like to go in there. It looked really nice,” Downie said.
Cowan’s street filled up with gawpers, pushing prams and carrying bags of Christmas shopping. He said he felt very lucky indeed. “If there had been a fire with aviation fuel, it could have been much worse,” he said.
“Being beside the Clyde, the winds in this area are very strong.
“The helicopter could have been blown on to my building, or the Holiday Inn.
“For the sake of an episode of Coronation Street, a few metres and a glass of red wine, I could not have been standing here today.”
Flight record: third police accident
FRIDAY night’s crash is the third involving a helicopter operated by police in Scotland.
The Glasgow-based Eurocopter EC135 T2, which came down on the Clutha pub, is Police Scotland’s sole helicopter.
The helicopter was used to search for missing persons, provide an overview of vehicle pursuits and major events, and take aerial photographs for use in planning and evidence. It had been operated by Strathclyde Police since 2007 until the single force was formed in April.
An EC135 T1 helicopter, operated by the former west of Scotland force, crashed in a field in East Ayrshire in 2002.
The three men on board – Constable Kenneth Irvine, Constable Neil McIntosh, and civilian pilot Alfonso Gasparro – had what witnesses described as a “miraculous” escape.
McIntosh was treated in hospital for leg, shoulder and head injuries while the pilot and other police officer suffered cuts and bruises and a minor head injury respectively. The helicopter came down during a search of woodland and fields near Muirkirk after reports of a child’s cry in the area.
In 1990, a police officer was killed when a Bell Jet 206 helicopter hit a block of flats during a snowstorm at Eastwood Toll on the southern edge of Glasgow.
Sergeant Malcolm Herd died during a search for armed robbers. Pilot Graham Pryke, Inspector John Muir and Sergeant William Shields were all injured. The aircraft had been borrowed from Radio Clyde because the police helicopter was undergoing routine repairs.