Steven Smith remembers

Steven Smith was Doctor at Halley Bay 1980. This is an extract from Steven's diary with some small deletions.

Saturday 2nd February
I had booked the darkroom for the morning and got up at nine o'clock. In the pit room corridor I met Jack Scotcher who told me that the MS Twin Otter aeroplane was due at the base airstrip at 9-40. I had a cup of coffee, dressed for going up on top, and stuffed a camera and a couple of lenses in my rucksack. A sno-cat with a sledge behind was already ticking over alongside the top of the access shaft. We climbed into the sledge and Steve Holdich jumped into the cab and drove up to the airstrip just outside the base perimeter drum line.

Miles had gone ahead on a skidoo and as we drew up he climbed up onto the roof of the caboose. The sno-cat had not quite halted when Twin Otter VPFAW flew over the horizon, came low over the bondu and executed a low banking turn in front of the sno-cat. This was what we had come out to see. Pilots traditionally entertain the base with a few low passes before coming in to land. Several people joined Miles on top of the roof of the caboose. The rest of us stood in front of the caboose and all of us had cameras at the ready. The 'plane was turning over the base and beginning an approach to the caboose.

I heard Miles say, “We're getting the full treatment, lights and all.” Jack, standing alongside him on the caboose, replied, “Yes, great isn't it.” Having set my camera I looked up to see the 'plane coming head on. It was a beautiful day and the red aircraft with lights blazing skimming over white snow with blue sky for a backdrop made a spectacular scene. I pressed the shutter release, and wound on the film as the aircraft passed over my head. By the time I had turned round the 'plane was over the caboose behind me. I lifted the camera for a shot but could only fit half the 'plane in the viewfinder. I hesitated and missed the shot. As I took the camera away from my eye I saw Miles topple slowly backward and Colin Morrell was tumbling off the back of the caboose. The only reason I could think of for this was that they had decided to jump clear at the last minute. Mick Roscoe and Jack were still standing on the roof and Steve Holdich had ducked down. Mick shouted to me and I realised what had happened. I tore my camera and rucksack off, shouting to Mick Hood to pull them off me, and ran up the ladder on to the roof. Miles was lying flat on his back with his head in a pool of blood. He was obviously not breathing and there was no pulse in his neck. He had several fractures in his skull and severe brain damage. I gave him artificial respiration and cardiac massage for a short while but it was really only to delay having to tell the others he was dead.

I looked up and said something like, “I'm sorry lads, there's nothing I can do.” I remembered Colin then so I leaned over the back of the caboose and asked whether he was hurt.

He replied, “Of course I'm bloody well hurt,” which I suppose was fair enough having just been hit by an aeroplane. He, of course, was unaware of what had happened to Miles. I climbed down the ladder from the caboose and went over to Colin who was sitting in the snow bent forward clutching his right arm. He had been struck by one of the 'plane's landing skis on the upper back and right shoulder. I was more concerned about his back than anything else so I laid him flat on the snow and asked for a stretcher to be fetched. Mike Hood had already gone back to base on a skidoo to get the emergency medical box so somebody sent a radio message from the 'plane for him to bring a stretcher as well. I put his arm in an inflatable splint from the 'plane's first aid kit, wrapped him up in anoraks, and waited for the stretcher. As soon as it came, we lifted Colin on to it and placed the stretcher on the Maudheim sledge. This done I left them to bring Colin into base behind the Sno-cat and went ahead on the Skidoo to get X-ray equipment set up. While I did this in the darkroom, I asked Pat Cooper and Pete Jenkins to set the bed up in the surgery.

By this time, Colin was at the top of the garage ramp. We slid the stretcher down under control of a rope and carried him through the base. The stretcher wouldn't go past the corner in the living block corridor so I decided to X-ray him there. I found he had a crush fracture of an upper thoracic vertebra which appeared to be stable. His right arm wasn't broken and in fact, he was not complaining so much of pain in the arm now. We transferred him to a Neil-Robertson stretcher for the rest of his journey to the surgery. This is a stretcher made of canvas with wooden slats for rigidity and buckled straps to hold the patient on. We could then tip him up to get round the corner and the rest of the way through the armco intersection and up the bunkroom corridor to the surgery. I'd already given him an injection of pethidine so when we'd got him on to the bed and made him reasonably comfortable there was little else that needed doing immediately. I left Pete J. and Mick to get Colin cleaned up and went back to the airstrip with Pat and Steve H. to bring Miles' body back to base. When we got there, I went up on the roof of the caboose with a stretcher and blankets. After covering the body completely I got Pat to give me a hand to lower the stretcher down on to the ice. We drove back to base and put the stretcher in the top of the surgery access shaft, which is only used as a fire escape.

By the time we'd done all this it was four in the afternoon. Colin was settled in the surgery where he'll be for the next couple of weeks and there was little else to be done. The fact that Miles was dead was only just beginning to sink in. It seemed quite impossible that he could have been killed so suddenly and unexpectedly. Andy Green has made contact with Dr. Laws, the BAS director, at Grytviken where he is on board the Bransfield. He has asked Jack Scotcher to be base commander and Pete Jenkins to be deputy base commander. Everybody here at Halley agrees with the director's choices and we will all have to give Jack and Pete every assistance with what is going to be a very difficult job.

Cambridge H.Q. are going to inform all our families of exactly what has happened. I just hope the press don't get hold of it first-especially before Miles' family have been told.

I spent most of the night up with Colin, so I've decided to sleep from 3-11 pm. Then I can stay in the surgery when nobody else is about.

Jack has been contacting the director to find out what the coroner in Stanley will require from us. He will presumably want an inquest but I am not sure how this will be done Colin is more settled today and is getting paracetamol rather than dihydrocodeine.

I had very little to do for Colin during the night. He was asleep most of the time so I'll be going back to normal sleeping habits too.

Wednesday 6th February

An average day in the surgery. Tried Colin with a bedpan today but it proved easier and less painful for two of us to get him onto the commode. The base fids and the air crew are being very helpful about coming in to see Colin and lending a hand with lifting but it is tiring being responsible for a patient all the time every day. The atmosphere on base is pretty strained too. The aircrew, particularly Gary the pilot, feel awkward obviously. Nobody blames Gary for what happened. Fids are as much to blame for encouraging pilots to do the low stunts when they visit base. All the same it's hard to strike the balance between trying to carry on as normal and not seeming to go out of our way to avoid mentioning the accident or Miles' death. And nobody knows what this will do to Gary's flying career. I suppose standing on a roof when an aeroplane is approaching could be construed as misadventure by a coroner. I hope so for Gary's sake. None of us wants to see him lose his licence or worse.

Dr Steven Smith

Smoke signal to landing aircraft












Miles letting off an out-of-date flare to say goodbye to the departing Bransfield in January 1980.

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