Shoreham air disaster: 'Silence' as jet crashed in flames

Seconds before the jet crashed onto the A27, Shoreham Image copyright Sussex Police/CPS
Image caption Seconds before the jet crashed on to the A27 in Shoreham

For 26 years Shoreham had enjoyed an air show that attracted 20,000 visitors and left the town buzzing but in 2015 the unthinkable happened. A jet crashed on to a dual carriageway, leaving 11 people dead.

The trial of pilot Andy Hill, who was cleared of the manslaughter of the victims on Friday, has prompted some of those who saw the disaster unfold to remember the palpable silence that descended as the aircraft burst into flames.

Photographer Archie Tipple had met up with friends to enjoy the show and was taking pictures as the Hawker Hunter came across the bridge and went into a loop manoeuvre.

When a plume of smoke went up and turned into "a ball of flame", at first he thought it was part of the event.

"We initially thought that's pyrotechnics and they've gone a bit over the top," he said. "And then it didn't come out of the smoke."

As it slowly dawned on those watching that the vintage jet had crashed, onlookers began to realise "something catastrophic" had taken place.

Image caption Archie Tipple was photographing the event when the plane went down

The quiet that followed the crash on Saturday 22 August 2015 has stayed in Mr Tipple's mind ever since.

"Everything just went really silent. People were stood there in disbelief, waiting for an outcome that never really happened," Mr Tipple remembers.

"And when the news came that the pilot had come out of the plane, we were like 'oh that's great news'."

At that point, onlookers believed the jet had landed in a field.

Image copyright Archie Tipple
Image caption Seconds before the crash, Archie Tipple had photographed the plane on its descent, just visible at the roofline of nearby buildings

"Then news started filtering through that he'd actually landed on the A27," Mr Tipple said. "And that was when I think the reality of how big an event this was hit myself and everybody, the people we were with, the spectators that were here."

Those close to the crash felt a shockwave as the plane hit the ground and the site was later described as being like a warzone, with debris, smoke and road signs left peppered with shrapnel.

Spectators felt the searing heat of the blast on their skin, while witness Terry Smith, from Worthing, remembered seeing a car with the top sliced off as he dived for cover.

Image copyright Eddie Mitchell
Image caption Plane wreckage was covered with foam and later removed by crane

Traffic in the area ground to a standstill and, as the sound of sirens took over, Mr Tipple ended up going to a friend's house because he could not get out of the town.

When he got there, he looked at his camera and discovered he had captured the moment of the plane's impact and the ensuing fire.

"He's literally below the roofline. You can see just the cockpit and the front part of the plane," he said. "Then the next thing which I got is just a ball of smoke."

He said it was when he looked at his pictures "it really hit home".

Image caption Matthew Grimstone and Jacob Schilt were known to their team-mates as "Grimbles" and "Snoobs"

The news several people had died came out on the day of the air crash but Sussex Police were only able to confirm numbers later, as investigations took place, and victims were identified over the coming days.

The parents of one of the 11 men who died, Jacob Schilt, said they realised on the day of the crash they had lost their son.

He had been due to play in a football match and the team got in contact with them after a photo of the car he was thought to be travelling in with teammate and fellow victim Matt Grimstone was spotted on social media.

The couple waited for five days for Jacob to be formally identified but said they understood police had to carry out their investigations.

Image caption Caroline and Bob Schilt knew they had lost their son on the day of the crash

Jacob's mother, Caroline Schilt, described her sickness as the realisation he had died hit home on the day of the crash, likening it to a "horrible, indescribable feeling".

In the hours her son was missing, she had been calling his phone.

Mrs Schilt said: "We now find that was a horrible time for the emergency services because they had all these phones going off that they couldn't touch, they couldn't answer them, but they were ringing and ringing and ringing in this crash site."

Image copyright BBC/Sussex Police/Facebook
Image caption The 11 men who died: (Top row, left to right) Matt Jones, Matthew Grimstone, Jacob Schilt, Maurice Abrahams, Richard Smith. (Bottom row, left to right) Mark Reeves, Tony Brightwell, Mark Trussler, Daniele Polito, Dylan Archer, Graham Mallinson

At the time, police said more than 200 people reported concerns for missing relatives or friends.

Jacob's father, Bob Schilt, said: "People talk about that terrible feeling. It kind of goes right through you when you know, you finally know.

"It's just a terrible, terrible feeling of hopelessness and loss."

Image caption Local vicar, the Reverend Terry Stratford, saw the plume of smoke go up and knew there had been a crash

As the community began to come to terms with what had happened, and the names of all the victims emerged, the "awful silence" that came directly after the crash gradually turned to the quietness of sadness and respect, according to the local vicar and MP.

The Reverend Terry Stratford, who was then a vicar in Shoreham but has since retired, saw the plume of black smoke go up on the day of the air show.

He knew immediately there had been an accident but he also knew there had been other, less serious, accidents before.

"I don't think I took on board the enormity of what was going to unfold," he remembers.

He said it did not hit him until late that night that a disaster had taken place on the church's doorstep and he realised "people are going to be looking to us… we need to find something to say".

Image copyright PA
Image caption People laid floral tributes at the toll bridge, which became known as the Bridge of Flowers, before a permanent memorial was made

Mr Stratford spent that night preparing to help people who would turn up at the church the next day.

The quiet hit him as people gathered for Sunday's service.

"There was a kind of awful silence over the town," he said, "as if no-one really knew how to react.

"It was almost as if people were walking around on tiptoe, afraid of disturbing anyone else, just waiting for the news to come through as to how bad it was."

Image copyright PA
Image caption A community was left in mourning and "truly shocked", a well-wisher wrote

Meanwhile, Tim Loughton, East Worthing and Shoreham MP, had driven along the A27 five minutes before the jet crashed.

As soon as he heard what had happened, he went straight back.

He recalled the atmosphere of the air show held every summer in Shoreham, bringing numbers of about 20,000 to watch the spectacle.

The air show has not taken place since the crash.

But traditionally it would have seen the town full of excitement and activity, as crowds who had spent a day watching the aircraft by the sea would then finish in a local pub with a drink afterwards, leaving the streets "buzzing", Mr Loughton said.

Image caption Tim Loughton MP remembers the "great outpouring of grief"

After the Hawker Hunter hit the road "there was an eerie quiet about the town".

Mr Loughton said a "great outpouring of grief" emerged as tributes turned the town's toll bridge into a "bridge of flowers".

"There was a quiet, respectful silence," he said. "People came along, gave their flowers, made their own memorial in their own, quiet way."

Colin Baker, chairman of the directors of the Shoreham Airshow, said the event was stood down in deference to everyone involved, particularly the bereaved families.

He said it would not resume until matters were settled, including the inquest, and then organisers would have to seek agreement from the Civil Aviation Authority, the Air Accidents Investigation Branch, the police, fire service, council and others, before they could stage another event.

Image caption Colin Baker, Shoreham Airshow chief, went to the scene of the crash

Mr Baker, who was at the show that day, was taken to the scene of the crash.

"It was the sort of thing that you shouldn't see. Nobody should see it," he said.

"Immediately our thoughts, my thoughts and everyone else's was for those that had been killed and injured.

"That ball of worry is still there. It's like a cloud over the air show organisers all the time. It won't go away.

"We do so feel for the people, for the families, for the relatives, the friends of the people that were killed."

Image copyright PA
Image caption Andy Hill has been cleared of 11 charges of manslaughter by gross negligence

More than three years on from the crash, tributes have gone from the bridge, Shoreham has a permanent memorial to the 11 and life in the town has started to move on. But the trial of pilot Mr Hill at the Old Bailey has meant the families and community have again been confronted by the reality of what happened that day in 2015.

"It's shocking," Mrs Schilt said. "Because we've seen footage that we haven't seen before. It brings it home to us exactly what happened.

"But at the same time, it is telling us exactly what happened and we feel we need to know.

"I know he didn't intend to crash his plane. He certainly wouldn't have intended to kill anybody. And I really don't know how he feels about it.

"I'd actually quite like to have a conversation with him really, not to point the finger at him or be unpleasant but just because I don't really know what is going on inside his mind."

Mr Schilt said: "I don't for a moment believe that he had any intention of doing harm. I don't really feel any bitterness like that.

"I'm very bitter about what has happened."

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