Today marks five years since unbelievable tragedy hit my home town of Whitehaven.
I still recall vividly how the surreal events unfolded little by little. My family and I were living in Bangladesh at the time believing we were the ones living in the dangerous place where strikes were always violent, where angry mobs would set fire to whole trains with passengers still in them, where political activism means looting and burning whole villages.
It was my sister, living in the south of England who texted me to ask “are your family ok?”
“Of course,” I replied, “why shouldn’t they be?”
Then she told me that it was headline news that a taxi driver had gone on a rampant killing spree. We immediately contacted my wife’s parents who live in the Whitehaven area. They knew nothing at all and we began to think some sick joke was playing out on UK TV.
Then the reports started to flood in on Facebook.
Man shooting randomly at people as he drove his car. In Whitehaven. In Egremont, In Seascale. Friends locked into the local library with their children as news spread fast that a killer was on the loose. Later we found out he drove near or past our house in Egremont and fired at our neighbour who was standing talking to a friend. He missed our neighbour and killed the friend.
I remember hugging my children and torn between conflicting emotions: on the one hand devastated for the fear and loss our Cumbrian friends were going through; on the other grateful that we were five thousand miles away. My children could have been there, on that road and fired at by a mad man. I felt selfish and relieved at the same time.
And then it was over. Derrick Bird was dead and everyone was safe again. But what devastation after a such an annus horribilis. The shootings proved to be the final awful scene to a year which started in May the previous year with the school coach crash in Keswick killing two teenagers and went on to see widespread floods in November which resulted in the death of a police officer, PC Bill Barker, who saved the lives of motorists, directing them away from a crumbling bridge.
I’ve had the honour and privilege of getting to know his widow over the last few months through our campaign to save St Bees School. It’s ironic how life throws people together, isn’t it? He’s a man I wish I had known for I admire him not just for his courage that year but because I know how much he was, and is to this day, loved by others and that counts for more in my book.
Just when we thought Cumbria had had enough tragedies the shootings took place and it seemed Whitehaven and area was cursed. But Cumbrians are hardy folk and they don’t give up, they don’t do despair, and they don’t lie down and ‘take it’. The town arose immediately and we all became stronger and closer as we supported one another and got each other through it. We all became family that year – even those of us on the other side of the world – and we’ve remained family. It doesn’t make up for what happened; it’s no ‘silver lining’ or ‘seeing the plan’ or any other such nonsense. There is no good side to what happened. It was just wrong, plain and simple. But we got through it.
This post then is in tribute to those who survived as much as those who didn’t. To the resilience of Cumbrians when nature, technology and people let us down. To the belief that we can face anything by sticking together because no one else is going to help us. We won’t forget – and that, at least, is something.