THEY downed tools and stood to attention, work briefly set aside so respect could be paid. As bodies of the victims were slowly driven out of the tented site of The Clutha bar, an honour guard of police, paramedics and firefighters stood to attention and saluted.
An eerie silence fell upon Clyde Street, in the broken heart of Glasgow, as the bodies slowly passed by. These were the remains of the last of the nine victims to be removed.
The fire crews in dusty khaki overalls, police in high-visibility green waterproof jackets and other staff in blue boiler suits, about 50 in total, took up their positions in two parallel lines. At the far end of the street, next to the pub, the flaps of the giant white tent, erected to shield the delicate work of body recovery from public view, opened and the lights of a vehicle shone out.
On the main road, members of the public stopped as a police motorcyclist led two private ambulances from the remains of the bar. As they passed, the line of officers on either side of the road, heads bowed, saluted.
It was to be a day of departures. Hours later, the remains of the police helicopter, swaddled under canvas and strapped to a lorry, also left the scene. It was beginning the long drive to the Farnborough centre of the Air Accident Investigations Branch, where it will be examined to find the answer to the key question asked by both police and the victims’ families: “Why?”
Yesterday had begun with David Goodhew, the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service operation commander, revealing the bar would be searched for a final time for about two hours after the helicopter was removed. “Of course, we hope that there’s nobody else in there, but before we can confirm that we need to be double, double sure,” he said.
The recovery operation, he explained, had been hampered due to the unique structure of the building, which is the ground floor of a former Victorian tenement whose upper floors were demolished in the 1960s. The roof consisted of the old first floor, on which was constructed a new timber and felt covering, then a separate layer of soundproofing. He also told how the internal sandstone walls were a metre thick.
He said: “It was three or four storeys high, so actually the walls you see are not nine inches thick, they are almost a metre thick at the bottom. Therefore, the walls are substantial and they are made of sandstone and where you see a roof, that’s actually the third roof covering.”
Mr Goodhew admitted it had been “very moving” and “a very, very stressful situation”.
After the helicopter had been made ready for removal, the process was relatively swift. It began to rise at 10:15am and was deposited on the ground behind specially erected 8ft high steel walls within ten minutes. A cloud of dust rose as it emerged.
Dozens of spectators watched as the aircraft was hauled out by a massive crane, with straps and struts positioned around the tail and body of the helicopter.
Among the crowd were two sisters who survived the disaster, Anne Faulds, 47, and Nancy Primrose, 55, who had both thought the other was dead. Anne said: “We wanted to come down and tell our stories and thank all those who helped us.”
They were joined by Alan Crossan, owner of The Clutha, who said: “It’s a strange and terrible thing to see a helicopter lifted out of your pub. I still can’t believe that it took place. Two of my staff are still in hospital, one with a broken arm, one with a broken leg, but we’re also worried about how many other bodies of customers they might find. It is awful.”
Brian Nugent, chairman of charitable trust the Tryst, which sits next to The Clutha, also visited the scene and told how his property appeared to be undamaged. He said: “You can’t believe what has happened.”
He insisted the unsung hero of the night had been a barman who went back into the building to turn off the gas supply in the basement, despite being injured and covered in what he believed to be fuel from the helicopter’s engines. “He is a hero,” Mr Nugent said.
Among visitors to a wall of flowers that sprung up along the side of the nearby Holiday Express Hotel was Mark Walton, managing director of telecom firm Aquira, and Grant Lesley, also from Aquira, who laid flowers for one of the victims, Gary Arthur, a company employee.
“He was well-liked and well-respected and he will be sadly missed,” Mr Walton said.
“We want to extend our sympathy and support to his family. He had worked with us for six weeks as part of the marketing team but he had worked within the industry for a long time. It has been a terrible shock.”
Mr Arthur was the father of Celtic women’s under-19 player Chloe, and Parkhead boss Neil Lennon was among those who visited the site to pay their respects.
He said: “It’s an unforeseen tragedy that’s affected the whole city, and the city is united in grief at the minute. There’s an eerie atmosphere around the place at the minute, which you can understand. It puts everything into perspective.
“What I would say about the city, though, is that I think, on all sides, we’re all united in grief.”
Dozens of people continued to place flowers at the scene and leave messages for victims and their families. Police exchanged hugs with one another and laid flowers for their fallen colleagues.
By sunset, the site was almost still. Officials said the bodies of all nine victims had been removed and the helicopter had started its journey south. Behind the large steel barriers set up around the bar, there were handshakes and hugs as the salvage teams departed.
Shortly afterwards, at 6pm, parts of the city fell still as a minute’s silence was observed to remember the victims and those still in hospital after being injured – three of them seriously.
Hundreds stood silently in George Square, in the centre of the city. Many had been visiting the Christmas fair. The fair rides and ice skating stopped on the stroke of 6pm. A message on the big TV screen in the square read: “We continue to remember all of those affected by the tragedy at the Clutha bar.”
By then, the wall of flowers was eight bouquets deep and included a white T-shirt with the words: “Good night friends, until we dance again. The Glasgow Ska family.”
There were bouquets from local businesses, major supermarkets and shops. A few colourful teddy bears had also been placed there – even a toy police helicopter. They were from anonymous Glaswegians.
One bouquet read: “We did not know you. We never met you. But the hearts of Glasgow will never forget.”
Elsewhere in the city, Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon visited Scottish Ambulance Service staff in Springburn, to thank them for their response.
She said crews had been working as quickly and safely as possible, but she understood the “frustration and the anguish” of people who were waiting for news of missing relatives.
“I hope it is of comfort to them that they know that the thoughts not just of the people across Glasgow but people across the country are with them,” she said.
One of those people is John McGarrigle, who believes his father, John snr, was in The Clutha at the time of the tragedy and has not yet been found.
Meanwhile, Pope Francis has expressed his “closeness” to the people of Glasgow after the crash, which occurred close to St Andrew’s Cathedral in the city.
He sent a message to Archbishop of Glasgow Philip Tartaglia, conveyed by Papal Nuncio Archbishop Antonio Mennini, which read: “I would like hereby to convey to you, as Archbishop of Glasgow, the closeness of the Holy Father as well as my most sincere sympathy in these difficult moments.”