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22nd January 2013

Vauxhall Helicopter Crash: One Week On

It was with horror on Wednesday morning last week that Stefan Lorett, our Projects Manager, standing at the front of Brunswick House, first heard and then saw, a helicopter plummet straight past and crash into the busy London street in front of him. Helicopter wreckage and burning aviation fuel was spread across Wandsworth Road, just along from where he stood. The broken jib of the 500ft crane that the helicopter had caught, was dangling from Vauxhall Tower high above the rear of the shop. Some of the enormous crane crashed down into the street just outside the LASSCO car-park. As a huge plume of black smoke billowed across Lambeth, the emergency services and the world’s media descended.

Vauxhall Helicopter Crash January 2013
Vauxhall Helicopter Crash January 2013

Brunswick House was built in 1769, a handsome brick-built 5-bay villa, its back to the Thames with its own jetty. At the front it then had a view to Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, the River Effra and the market gardens of the area. Now it forms the grand home to our Architectural Salvage shop “LASSCO” as well as the burgeoning restaurant “The Brunswick House Café”. The house is a lone Georgian survivor in the area. It is now surrounded by ever-more glass towers. It has witnessed much in the last 250 years on the busy junction of Wandsworth Road and Nine Elms Lane at Vauxhall Cross but perhaps nothing as awful as a helicopter crash.

The fifty storey Vauxhall Tower, or “No.1 St. George Wharf“, directly behind the house is destined, on completion, to be the tallest residential building in Europe. It was the tower-crane poking above this new building that had been hit by the helicopter – flying in poor visibility. In the circumstances the disaster could have been even worse; it was a small miracle that the stricken helicopter, that had been en route to the heliport in Battersea, did not land on top of a building such as Brunswick House and the lethal consequences that that would have brought.

Stefan described what he saw on Wednesday 16th January:

“At eight o’clock I came out of Vauxhall tube station and headed along to the house. I was chatting with two colleagues on the front steps of Brunswick House when we heard a helicopter nearby –  police, air-ambulance and army Chinooks are forever clattering past, so we ignored it – but the usual engine noise was followed by a loud “bang” , like a gas bottle blowing up, and we all looked up to see a helicopter coming  into view past the side of the building with a significant portion of the tail appearing to drop off. Quite a lot of metal was coming down. The helicopter swerved in a frisbee style movement round into Wandsworth Road, coming to rest much further along than one might have expected, just short of the railway bridge.”

“I expected it to come down and crumple up, but I was amazed to see an enormous fireball that briefly flared-up above the level of the railway bridge. This died down to leave flames at ground level with a spreading cloud of thick black smoke. A bus had stopped only a few car lengths from the flames though a VW and a Range Rover heading into town along Wandsworth Road had caught fire.”

With the emergency services very quick to arrive on scene Stefan took these photographs, (published here for the first time). The LASSCO team checked the building and the yard for damage and were soon asked to evacuate. All who had seen the crash were in a degree of shock having just witnessed what was undoubtedly a fatal accident. The helicopter had narrowly missed a number of surrounding residential and office buildings. Later, it was confirmed that the pilot and one person on the ground had perished – a dozen others were taken to hospital.

Being at the peak of rush hour, the whole area became quickly gridlocked as the fire engines, police and ambulance vehicles poured in to deal with the burning wreckage of the Agusta 109 helicopter, several other vehicles and the injured. The area was sealed off.

Brunswick House found itself stranded in the middle of the disaster scene. Jackson Boxer, proprietor of The Brunswick House Café, together with his staff, took up residence in the Italian deli’ around the corner. “Strong tea and a nip of Fernet to steady the nerves” was needed apparently. The LASSCO lot re-grouped at “Ropewalk”, our Bermondsey shop.

The 500ft crane with a broken jib-arm, posed a danger. It put Brunswick House out-of-bounds for three days last week. Engineers had to work-out how to safely dismantle the crane.

Crane Rescue, Vauxhall Tower, Nine Elms Lane SW9
Crane Rescue, Vauxhall Tower, Nine Elms Lane SW9

By the weekend, one of the country’s largest mobile cranes arrived, as snow came down, to begin the salvage operation. Nine Elms Lane, to the side of Brunswick House, has been given over to this 800 tonne monster which dwarfs the elegant form of the Georgian house. It looks a rather fragile brick box with these giants looming over it.

An inquiry of some sort will follow. It will have recommendations for better lights on high cranes. It will examine the routes of helicopters flying over London in general and near tall buildings in particular. It may even look at why helicopters need to fly over London at all and who is using them. It probably won’t look at whether we need these glass towers with their concierges, huge service charges and river-hogging attitudes – these speculative, half-empty amendments to the elegant cityscape that Brunswick House once knew. They may look wonderful in a Texan or Arabian dawn but they loom menacing and grey on a gloomy winter’s day here. Even the Shard is pointless and invisible in a London fog. The burning helicopter may ultimately just be remembered as a small part of the dystopian vision that is being created around us.

Captain Peter Barnes, 50, and Matthew Wood, 39, were tragically killed in this accident. An inquiry into how the accident happened will follow.

All of the above images are (c) Stefan Lorett