How Kegworth air-crash hero drove out the demons

Clare Garner
Tuesday 10 February 1998 00:02 GMT

The first man at the scene of the 1989 Kegworth air disaster was awarded pounds 57,000 damages at the High Court yesterday for post-traumatic stress disorder. Clare Garner spoke to him about how his rescue efforts changed his life.

Graham Pearson can remember the precise position of the 20 bodies in the mangled fuselage. To his left, a man was dead. To his right, was a woman who said she was not in pain. She had broken her spine.

It was dark, except for a dim orange flicker of lights from outside. The smell was of a butcher's shop, the atmosphere macabre. "You can imagine, you've got a woman there saying: `Get my baby out. Get my baby out.' Another person is holding the hand of his wife saying: `I know she's dead.' Someone is saying: `Have I still got my feet?'"

For a few minutes Mr Pearson, 39, was lost in time. Nine years had shrunk to nothing as the monstrous memories of the night of Sunday 8 January 1989 gripped his mind. "And that," he said apologetically, "is what's quite difficult to deal with."

Mr Pearson, who lives in Hull, had been travelling north on the M1 with his wife, Rose, 34, when the British Midland Boeing 737-400 crossed his path. As soon as it hit the ground he instinctively ran to help.

Three and a half hours later he emerged from the wreckage, the only civilian rescuer, covered in blood and mentally scarred for life. But Mr Pearson did not see it that way. The former Royal Marine felt he had only done what anyone else would have done.

The truth was that his rescue efforts had taken their toll. He had become a different person. His wife could hardly recognise him and his children did not understand why they were being shouted at all the time. Their son, Wesley, who was five, became disruptive at school.

"It got to the point when we actually told our oldest children that Mummy and Daddy were divorcing, that we couldn't continue in this relationship because of the mood swings and my temper," said Mr Pearson. "I would erupt at the children for no real reason. Trivial things would just wind me up."

Something as small as a baby crying overhead was enough to trigger a flashback. In December 1994, he reached an all-time low. He came across a motorway pile-up but was unable to stop and help, and felt riddled with guilt afterwards.

Over the years, Mrs Pearson had begun to believe her husband: that nothing was wrong with him and that it was she who must have the problem. In June 1995, she issued an ultimatum. He must visit Dr Gordon Turnbull, an expert on post-traumatic stress disorder, at Ticehurst House Hospital, West Sussex, for a consultation - or else they must consider living separately for the children's sake.

Dr Turnbull diagnosed Mr Pearson as having severe post-traumatic stress disorder. His denial that he had a problem was a classic symptom. Mrs Pearson remembers thinking: "Thank god for that. It's seven years and someone actually believes me."

Two months later, he was admitted for a two-week residential therapy course. His wife recalled: "I thought: `How can they bring back my husband from seven years ago in 13 days? But when I got to Ticehurst and I saw him, just the look on his face told me that all the hurt and all the pain had gone away, and stood in front of me was my husband again."

Mr Pearson was presented with a bravery award from the Royal Humane Society in 1990. "It was all framed nicely. I've never put it on the wall. I've never told people," he said. "I think maybe after this [case] it may go up on the wall and that's part of feeling it's come to a close ... I can actually look at it and it's not going to upset me."

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