Emergency chaplains remember Clutha one year on

Saturday marks the first anniversary of the Clutha disaster after a police helicopter crashed through the roof of the Glasgow pub.

Church of Scotland congregations this weekend will pause to remember those who perished and their families. Glasgow Cathedral will hold its annual St Andrewstide service and will include an act of remembrance.

On Friday November 29, 2013, as people were in the Clutha Vaults Bar, enjoying a Friday night with friends and music, the police helicopter plunged out of the sky and hit the Clutha, passers-by stopped, refusing to believe what they had witnessed. Ten people died that night. Seven in the bar and the three police staff on board the helicopter.

For a moment time stopped. And then the spirit which is Glasgow took hold.

Reverend Neil Galbraith, the Church of Scotland's Chaplain to Police Scotland, and Reverend Gordon Armstrong, the Church of Scotland's Chaplain to the Fire and Rescue Service, were amongst the first on the scene.

Below the two ministers recall the events of that Friday evening and the days which followed.

Rev Neil Galbraith: Cathcart Old Parish Church of Scotland

It was night of see-saw emotions, a cold typical Glasgow Friday, people at play, having conversations and a city being a city. Then suddenly, a moment of terrible change and things were forever different.

Rev Neil Galbraith Reverend Neil Galbraith, the Church of Scotland's Chaplain to Police Scotland. Photo courtesy of the Daily Record.

I arrived at eleven pm. People were still being brought out of the Clutha. Souls were sitting in a sandpit of dust and rubble. Women in their Friday clothes became front line nurses and the men first responders pulling regulars out of the famous bar which in a moment had become a tragic icon of disaster.

As I got closer I could see the tail rota of a helicopter, our helicopter, the eye in the sky which watched over and protected the citizens of Glasgow: our police "copper chopper."

I am the Chaplain to the Force. I felt both sick and strong at the same time because there was a job to do. I was part of the team which would be going through all the emotions to bring hope to this desperation situation.

In the hours which followed being right at the heart of the site, the second part of the emotional see-saw appeared from the shock of the first. The dignity, the passion, the drive of the rescuers; the bravery of the relief chopper crew who were now the frontline trauma team; the firefighters who like ants were climbing over the rubble and roof to get to the fallen; the quiet dignity of the crowds who gathered at the top of the street and quietly watched, and perhaps prayed. Then the news there was dead.

I felt both sick and strong at the same time because there was a job to do. Reverend Neil Galbraith

It was almost 24 hours later before Sir Stephen House, in a voice filled with raw emotion and dignity, announced the first official numbers. It was not good. Alex Salmond, then First Minister of Scotland, nodded to me on his road past. There was no need for words. I walked a little closer and heard him say, "It's St Andrew's Day. Let's bear the pain together," and we did, but we did much more.

The heart of Glasgow stepped up to the mark and generosity of spirit, and dignity shone through. There was no heroes that weekend but a city of heroes who took the families of this terrible night to their hearts, who showed the greatest respect to the rescue workers, and who in the weeks to come remembered, mourned and loved the families, who lost so much, and the police crew and the customers of the Clutha who were stolen from us.

In our grief we found strength. In our strength we were Glaswegians.

Rev Gordon Armstrong, Chaplain to the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service and minister at Oakshaw Trinity, Glasgow

I was a guest at a function at Ibrox when I got the telephone call from the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service control in Johnstone.

Rev Gordon Armstrong Rev Gordon Armstrong, Chaplain to the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service and minister at Oakshaw Trinity, Glasgow Photo courtesy of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service.

There had been a serious incident in Glasgow involving a police helicopter and likely fatalities. I quickly made my excuses and made the short drive to the incident scene: the Clutha.

I had very few thoughts as I drove other than the numbness of such a tragedy. My thoughts and prayers were for those involved at the scene and indeed of those who would have to put their lives at risk trying to save others.

I think on mind as I drove I had an image of flames, debris and the smell of aviation fuel. There was none of these: just lots of people helping others. Emergency Services personnel set up cordons for the crowds who were forming at the scene. I looked up. And there was the helicopter sticking out of the flat roof of the Clutha.

It was 3am. There were more crowds gathering, as if keeping vigil, and there was an inexplicable silence. Despite the work going and activity it was eerily silent. On the Monday I was back at the site, as one of the Guard of Honour as the ninth body was removed from the Clutha.

My job is to support and listen to the staff and crews of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service. We make ourselves available to all emergency services personnel. But this time was different. I spoke to contractors who had been brought in, who normally would not, should not see some of the things they saw.

I knew several people who were in the Clutha Bar that Friday night. I have nothing but pride for everyone who helped people unknown to themselves that night and the days which followed.

Almost one year on, my thoughts and prayers can only be with the families and who lost loved ones on that night.