‘Cup of Tea Tales’ – Evacuations, Fires, Disasters, and Airplane and Airport Incidents. Growing up in Leeds and Realising I was Mortal.

I am not sure if I attract incidents or whether it is just that the longer that you live, the more things that happen. When I was young, probably like most children, I believed that I was safe. My parents provided a caring and nurturing home and I don’t ever remember worrying about real danger. We didn’t get the news coverage that we do nowadays and as a result we didn’t worry about fires, plagues or car accidents. Nowadays, I watch the news almost constantly and that certainly adds to the stresses of living. My late mother-in-law was a lovely lady, and she said she never watched the news as it just upset her. This was a sensible, down-to-earth approach and has much to commend it. I know that peoplein the UK sometimes hear about fires in the eastern states of Australia and wonder if we are OK. I have to point out that in Perth we are as far away from them as Leeds is to Moscow.

School Fire Drill

At Harehills County Primary School, we did have fire drills. We didn’t have them often, but we were supposed to stand, line up and follow the teacher, usually for us, Mr Kelly, and walk in single file to gather in the playground, where we were checked off on the register. It didn’t happen often, but when it did, it was quite exciting. Whilst at Harehills there were two disasters that as children we did become very aware of. The Aberfan Disaster on the 21st October 1966 saw 116 children and 28 adults killed at Pantglas Primary School. A wall of slurry slid down the steep tip hillside and buried the school. This was something that we all saw on television, and the school raised funds to support the town. Because it affected mainly children, it had a big impact on us and was a shock.

Aberfan – 1966

The second disaster was the famine in Biafra in 1967. A dispute between an independent Biafra and Nigeria meant Biafra was blockaded from food supplies and the television saw terrible images of children starving. The publicity created international horror and as a school we took part in raising money and we all knitted woollen squares to be joined to make blankets to be sent to the country. Parents also got involved and several blankets were produced. I am not sure whether the blankets would have been any real use, but again it shook our childish senses as we saw how children could suffer. Unfortunately, we seem to get regular images of horror and examples of man’s inhumanity to man and often, great fundraising events such as Band Aid take place and offer temporary relief.

Knitted Blanket Squares

At Roundhay School, I can only ever remember maybe two evacuation drills and I assume evacuating 800 teenage boys was more than most teachers could bear, but I seem to recall an evacuation due to a bomb threat, but it was a hoax.

At home in Gipton Wood Crescent we did have a bit of excitement when I was still at primary school, as the fire brigade turned up one afternoon and had to deal with a fire in a neighbour’s house adjoining Mrs Winn’s, our next-door neighbour. The children from neighbouring houses came out to watch the excitement as the firemen pulled out the hose and went into the kitchen and dealt with the fire. Now two causes spring to mind and I believe the real cause was a cigarette thrown into the plastic washing-up bowl. The bowl had no water in it and it set alight and filled the kitchen with dense black smoke. I believe the family had gone out. The other potential cause was a chip-pan fire. The reason I don’t think this was the actual cause of the incident, was that we used to have a few chip-pan fires over the years. Mum would forget the pan of boiling fat was on and it reached ignition point. She was well rehearsed in dealing with it though, and a damp tea-towel would be placed over it and it was left to cool and the stove turned off. The damp cloth smothered the fire and avoided injuries. Apparently, people used to panic and throw water on it, which would tend to make it explode, or try to carry it outside and burn themselves badly.

A Chip-Pan Fire

My main experience with any other dangers and disasters was limited to my older brother’s accidents until I had left school. I have mentioned some of my run-ins with incidents, but some of my more interesting near-misses happened after I moved from Leeds. In London I set myself on fire by accident. I was a student teacher in East Bedfont, near Heathrow and I used to smoke at this time. In London, buses tended to be unpredictable and when one turned up, there were often three or four, one behind each other. I was wearing a reefer jacket and I had just lit a cigarette when the single-decker bus arrived. You couldn’t smoke on the bus so I knocked the lit end off the cigarette and put the fag in my pocket and got on to the bus. I sat about halfway back and there were about six or seven others on the bus behind me. After about twenty minutes, I noticed a strong smell of burning and I turned to look behind me to see who was smoking. No one was, but the back of the bus was filled with smoke. I was a bit perplexed and looked down to see that it was billowing out of my jacket pocket. I panicked as I realised that the cigarette had relit and had set the cigarette tokens in my pocket alight. I stood and beat the pocket to put out the fire, and when it was out, I saw that it had burned right through the jacket and was just about to reach my skin. I was shocked, and even more shocked, by the lack of response from everyone on the bus. No one said anything, and they had just sat in silence, watching me burn as if it were an everyday occurrence. It highlighted the difference between the folk in London and Leeds. In Yorkshire, people talk to each other. I remember going to an interview for a school near Rotherham on the Wigmore’s bus. It was about a forty-minute ride. By the time I had got off the bus I knew about the lives of those seated around me, and they knew all about me. Whereas in London, no one ever spoke to strangers and any attempt to greet a stranger or to hold a conversation would be seen as a hostile act.

A london Single-decker Bus
Filmed in Koh Samui – a bomb went off in the local shopping centre the day my wife and I left.

There was an incident when I was a teacher at Lawefield Middle School in Wakefield. It was raining hard in the morning and there was a flood warning for the area as it was low and had a beck running past it. By lunchtime it was still raining heavily and I decided to move my car from the staff carpark to higher ground near the railway station. This was a good decision as the roads were beginning to pool standing water, and by the time I had walked back to school I was having to wade through ankle-deep floods. By the end of school, however, the water was up to the school steps and the lower areas by the main street were well under water and some cars were inundated up to their windows and the school carpark was cut off. I had saved the car from being ruined, but I had to wade through deep flooding to get back to it.

A similar situation took place when I lived in Wrenthorpe, near Wakefield, a few years later. The school was Rooks Nest, and it started snowing in the morning and it was getting thick by lunchtime. It was about a thirty-minute walk away, so I decided to take the car home and then walk back. We lived on Wrenthorpe Road and the driveway was a steep, but short incline down to the house. I drove back through the thickening snow and opened the gates, drove the car through, and left it on the slope whilst I got out to open the garage doors. Getting out was the mistake. The loss of my weight allowed the car to start slipping forward on the snow. There was nothing I could do, but watch as if in slow motion as it slid forward and hit the brickwork and garage door, cause damage to the car and the door. I could have cried with frustration. A few days later the insurance assessor arrived and when I explained, I said that I bet he hadn’t seen many similar accidents. He told me he had seen a surprising number and that in many cases the car had pinned the driver to the door. I felt a little better to know that others were even more unlucky.

Manchester Airport

The most common places that I have experienced alarming incidents have been at airports and hotels. A few years back, I flew from Australia to London and then on to Manchester Airport. The flight to London was long and uneventful, but I got on the flight to Manchester, that usually was just over an hour. We were all sitting on the plane ready to leave, when there was a bit of a kerfuffle at the back. A few minutes later, there was an announcement that we had to get off and go back to the departure lounge. We all did this and after a while, we were allowed back on. The flight took off, and it was only whilst we were in the air that we learnt that someone at the back had suffered a heart attack and they needed to remove him using a cherry-picker to take him out of the back of the plane. I can only assume that he was dead, and they didn’t want to take him through the packed airport.

On another occasion, my mother-in-law was returning to the UK after staying with us. We were queuing up with her to check in and an announcement came over the PA, asking if there was a doctor or a nurse in the airport. We didn’t take any notice for a while, but I turned around and behind us were the double doors of the main entrance. A screen was drawn around the doors and an ambulance arrived. We discovered a passenger had had a heart attack, collapsed and died.

The airlines have lost my luggage on several occasions, but it has always turned up. One year, though, I arrived at Manchester Airport and it was particularly quiet. I had never seen it like this before and so I went to collect my luggage and then went to customs, but there was no one there and I just walked through and out. At this time, the car hire section was in the multi-storey carpark directly outside. I went to get the car and the hire office was still open. The man there said, “You’ve picked a good day to arrive.” I asked him what he meant, and he told me the airport had been evacuated due to a bomb scare. As I drove out of the airport, I saw lots of police and I listened to the news. A man carrying a suitcase had run onto the airstrip, chased by police, and he had been tasered and his bag blown up. This was at a time of heightened terrorist activity, and the poor man was mentally ill. He was very fortunate not to have been shot. There was apparently nothing but clothes in his bag, but the incident caused major delays for travellers.

Weetwood Hall Hotel, Harrogate Road, Leeds

It isn’t only when flying you can have problems, though. On two separate holidays, a year apart, we were woken in the early hours with the fire alarms going off in the hotels. The first occasion was at Weetwood Hall near the Ring Road and we all had to stand in the carpark for about an hour whilst the building was checked. The next year we were at Parkway Hotel near Golden Acre Park. Some youth orchestra was staying there after a performance and they had been in the bar a while. Later that night the alarm went off and everyone was evacuated. There was a lot of chatter whilst we waited for the fire brigade and a group of the orchestra suddenly started singing an a cappella version of ‘Lean On Me’. It was really very good and lightened the mood.

Lean On Me at The Parkway Hotel
The Parkway Hotel near Golden Acre Park

You might be wondering how my thoughts led to such incidents. Well I have just been in one of the local shopping centres, Southlands, and I was just paying for the groceries in Coles when the evacuation alarm went off and everyone had to leave everything and go. Fortunately, I had just put in the pin number for the sale and could wheel the trolley out to the car. Everyone else in the store had to leave their trolleys behind. Seems that the Cameron curse is still alive and well!

An Australian/Papua New Guinea adventure.

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