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A week in the shadow of the dam - The residents of Whaley Bridge look back at the near tragedy

PUBLISHED: 00:00 16 October 2019

Chinook Whaley Bridge

Chinook Whaley Bridge

rober tfalconer

The emergency may be over and the world's media moved on, but how are Whaley Bridge residents coping, living with the tragedy that almost was? Andrew Griffiths reports

'I personally don't want to see the dam put back. If I had a stick of dynamite I would blow it up tomorrow.' So says Father Jamie MacLeod, reflecting back on the week when first the town of Whaley Bridge, and then the world, held its breath to see whether the cracked dam of Toddbrook Reservoir would hold.

The wall was damaged after unprecedented rainfall onto the moors and into the already swollen rivers that fed the reservoir. The crack resulted in an emergency operation every bit as extraordinary as the weather than had provoked it, and engineers worked against the clock to pump water out of the reservoir and into the River Goyt and through the Mersey system and out of harm's way.

It was a delicate balancing act to get the water in the reservoir below the critical level without overloading the river, which could have flooded those downstream. The drama had begun on Thursday 1st August, and if all that wasn't enough to contend with, more storms were forecast to blow in over that coming weekend.

It was, as a senior engineer later said to me, a case of: 'All hands to the pump.' The military were just some of the services drafted in and a Chinook helicopter, which was destined to become the defining image of the rescue effort, flew sufficient missions to drop 500 tonnes of stone to shore up that breach in the dam wall.

Pipes that were pumping out waterPipes that were pumping out water

There was a lot at stake. Everything was at stake. If that wall had breached, 300 million gallons of water would have been released into the valley and Whaley Bridge would have been washed off the map. There would have also been flooding with 'danger to life' further downstream as the deluge made its way along the route of the Goyt and the Peak Forest Canal.

It was within this hastily sketched context that one of the most extraordinary emergency responses, and an equally extraordinary community's response to it, took place. It included the evacuation of 1,500 people - a significant proportion of the town's population. In the words of Rachel Swann, Deputy Chief Constable of Derbyshire Constabulary, in a letter to Father Jamie MacLeod dated 16th August: 'It is no exaggeration when I state that this incident was one of, if not, the largest peacetime evacuations of civilians in the United Kingdom.'

Whaley Hall stands at the top of a hill immediately above the Reservoir dam. Here, Father Jamie MacLeod runs a retreat. It is an interesting building: Georgian at the front but walk back into the hall and it is 17th century, then walk down the short flight of stone steps into the cellars and you descend almost ten centuries, to the sandstone walls of a monk's cell.

I sat with Father Jamie in a large lounge area which was lined with well-worn easy chairs. The hall, empty now, has a church-like quality of quiet to it. We took two chairs close together, in a corner.

Whaley HallWhaley Hall

I'd heard Father Jamie interviewed on the radio news at the time of the crisis, then he was described as the person who had raised the alarm about the damage to the dam. In what was a calm, measured voice, which occasionally cracked with emotion, he told of those moments again.

'The rain was coming down quite horrifically for a few days before,' he says. 'In the early hours of Wednesday morning, I woke up to the sound of this almighty roar of water. When I got up and went over to the dam, it was coming over full bore. I'd never seen it go like that before.

'That night, everybody was out in the park watching it. The park was flooding and the water was high in the village. You knew too much water was going over the dam.'

Did it cross his mind then that the dam might go, I asked?

View from the dam wallView from the dam wall

'I've never trusted the dam,' he tells me. The reservoir was emptied for engineering works in 2010, and Father Jamie had blessed the dam then. 'You look back with lots of "what if's,"' he says.

The next morning Father Jamie went to the dam and noticed a yellow substance oozing from between cracks appearing in the wall, 'It looked like clay,' he says. Then the keeper arrived and as he opened the sluice more slabs began to crack above him.

'Within fifteen minutes all the slabs on that side were starting to go, sinking into the mud and the water was coming through the side of the earth,' says Father Jamie.

Still children were playing in the park below and with a greater sense of urgency the priest urged their parents to move them away.

A last minute attempt to protect property before leavingA last minute attempt to protect property before leaving

Sometime between half past eleven and midday, Father Jamie remembers ringing an SOS on the church bell. At two o'clock, he says, the evacuation of the town had begun.

Within an hour of that bell ringing, and a call going out on Facebook, the extraordinary response of the community that characterised this crisis had begun. One hundred and fifty people turned up at the hall volunteering their services. Those that could cook cooked, and those that could bake baked, everybody started to do what they could to help the emergency response teams that had set up at the sailing club on this side of the dam.

'We started doing tea and coffee, with a big tea urn in a wheelbarrow,' says Father Jamie.

The closure of the dam had split the town in two, and the response teams on the other side of the reservoir were served by volunteers at the local sports club. But the battle to save the town was underway.

There is barely a shop window in Whaley Bridge that is not making some reference to the week the dam almost broke, either a thank you to the emergency services, fundraising for them or notifications of support for those residents who still feel they need some help coping with what happened. And there is plenty to cope with: not just the threat of losing your home or business - or in some cases both - but doing so under the intense gaze of the media, and having it all broadcast around the world.

Riverside Wellbeing is next to the bridge in town, right beside the River Goyt. It is a hub for alternative therapists, and psychotherapist Stephanie Johnson is offering free counselling sessions for people who are struggling to cope with events.

The consulting room overlooks the river. It is peaceful now, I think, as Stephanie leads me in, and the river flowing by the window makes a pleasant backdrop, but it must have been vulnerable during the floods, I started by asking.

'The business would have been wiped out, that is the bottom line,' says Stephanie. 'I live in Whaley Bridge so I have a house to be concerned about and a business that was right in the firing line,' she says. 'And it was a very real threat and a very real danger. I have seen a lot of people trying to come to terms with what happened, finding it difficult to sleep, not being able to relax.'

I asked her what it was like, not only having the stress of the potential disaster to deal with but the glare of the publicity too?

'It's quite scary actually, especially having a microphone shoved in your face, and so many cameras around,' says Stephanie, suddenly smiling - the irony is not lost. 'But not just the media - the presence of the police, and the army and the fire brigade. Whilst on one hand it is reassuring, on the other hand for some people it was like being in a war zone. It really was traumatic. I witnessed people kissing their houses goodbye. It really was strange.'

Just round the sharp right-hand corner of the village, going up towards Horwich End, is the Coop, the workplace of Tracey Roberts. Tracey lives in a terrace a few doors along from there. The river runs at the back of her row. She was flooded on the Wednesday, and then on the Thursday she was evacuated.

'The kitchen flooded Wednesday tea time, about two foot,' she tells me. The water didn't come under the door but up through the floor, under the stairs, which somehow made it more frightening, she says.

'I just had my wellies on so I thought right, well there's not a lot you can do is there, so we just went to chippy for tea.'

The next day there was a knock on the door and they were evacuated.

'My daughter had packed a suitcase, got the cat carrier ready, and she was ready for off, bless her. You forget how much water is up there, until you see it drained,' she says. 'It's very scary.'

Tracey and family stayed with friends, then when she could she went straight back to work. It wasn't until she had some time off that things caught up with her.

'I just had a meltdown,' she says simply. 'I didn't realise until I stopped, then I just started crying, and it hit home.'

Everywhere you look in Whaley Bridge you will see the same design: it is the now iconic image (locally at least) of a Chinook helicopter carrying its cargo of rocks to shore up that dam wall. Around it is the slogan: 'Keep your Chinook up'. Designed by local artist Ellie Kerr, it is the sort of pun that might produce a good-natured groan in the pub late on a Friday night but in this context it is somehow perfect for purpose.

Outside the local estate agents, from behind a makeshift table, Kath and Chris Sizeland are selling the design emblazoned onto T-shirts, window stickers and tote bags.

'Chris and I have sponsored it, so all the money goes to the emergency rescue volunteer services,' says Kath, a local councillor in Chapel. 'The first day we both went to Chapel High School, the evacuation centre, to help doing teas and coffees and things like that. It was just amazing, food and supplies and everything was coming in. People were so generous.'

Chris runs a packaging company in Chinley. 'Personal donations, supermarkets, somebody nipped to the Coop and they gave them a £250 free account to just take what they wanted off the shelves,' says Chris, 'But that was replicated a hundred times over.'

Talk to the people of Whaley Bridge, and the bond that was formed between the community and the emergency services was deep, but particularly so in the case of the volunteer emergency services. Those involved epitomised the community spirit that came to the fore - these men and women are drawn from the community which they had been called to serve.

Neil Carruthers coordinated the mountain rescue teams. Their role was real and vital - to put in place the ropes that allowed others in the team to move sandbags from the bottom of the dam to the top, in the early hours of the crisis.

While no one was trained to deal with a dam about to burst - how could you be? - the Mountain Rescue volunteers are trained to work as a team, to work with ropes, to perform rescues in difficult-to-reach situations, and what's more, to do it all under life-threatening pressure.

I suggest to Neil that given the situation there must have been an element of excitement, that all their training was being put to the test in such a real and immediate emergency?

'I would say pride,' says Neil. 'I wouldn't say excitement, I would say pride.'

Talk about that week now to many in Whaley Bridge and there is definite relief, and many look back with humour too. But talk for more than a few minutes and as the memories come back a shadow may cross their faces and it becomes clear that they have been through something that you have not.

'If there is a front line, then as a priest you are on that front line,' says Father Jamie, remembering living minute by minute with the uncertainty of whether the dam would hold or not. 'For those of us that are in ministry, it is not just about helping the people then, it is the next part - what may happen.

'There was one particular day and I remember just standing there, in the house, and I burst into tears. That is when it first hit me. And I was aware the more I spoke about it and opened up about how I felt, the more other people were also opening up and other people were crying and we were crying together. And at the moment, every time that a helicopter goes over, or you hear a beep or whatever, people are on tenterhooks still.'

To buy 'Keep your chinook up' merchandise - all money raised goes to emergency rescue volunteer services - go to www.etsy.com/uk/shop/ArtIsMental

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