Northern Ireland

North West 200: The red flag responders

Bikers arriving in Northern Ireland Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption Revving up: Many riders and spectators arrive in Northern Ireland by boat to attend the NW200

Keeping riders and spectators safe is the top priority of the organisers of the North West 200.

However, when an accident occurs and a race is stopped or "red flagged", teams of highly-trained professionals and volunteers are at the scene within minutes.

One of those volunteers is Bangor man Tony Harvey, who was the senior incident officer for the Motorcycle Union of Ireland (Ulster Centre) for more than three decades, but is at this year's North West 200 to provide incident support.

In 34 years, Mr Harvey was involved in investigating more than 40 deaths, mostly of riders, as well as hundreds of serious incidents at road and short-circuit races across Northern Ireland. He retired last November.

Image caption Tony Harvey was one of the first on the scene after an accident

Along with the director of racing, Mervyn Whyte, and other senior officials, Mr Harvey's team have included hundreds of marshals, emergency radio operators and first aiders around the circuit.

When a "red flag" is called, a race is stopped.

Mr Harvey and the emergency response and medical teams then make their way to the incident.

They have an air ambulance at their disposal, should it be needed.

'Video footage'

Mr Harvey was one of the first on the scene when Mark Buckley from Scotland was fatally injured in the Superstock Race in 2012.

"Initially we thought the 35-year-old had died from major leg injuries," he said.

"However, after months of appeal and with help from the PSNI, I obtained video footage from a spectator of the accident, which confirmed that the rider had in fact suffered a serious neck injury which resulted in his death."

At last year's North West 200, Mr Harvey dealt with what he described as the "untimely" death of Malachi Mitchell-Thomas, who he described as a "rising star".

He was also at the scene of last year's crash between Ryan Farquhar and Dan Cooper in the Supertwins race and has investigated the deaths of Robert Dunlop in 2008, Mark Young in 2009 and Simon Andrews in 2014.

"I always get to the scene as quickly as possible and interview as many witnesses as I can before they disperse and the area is cleared in preparation for the next race," he said.

Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption Violet McAfee was airlifted to hospital in Belfast

After a spectator was seriously injured during the opening race of the North West 200 in 2015, Mr Harvey was one of the first on the scene.

Violet McAfee was in the garden of a friend's house when the accident happened. Two riders, Stephen Thompson and Horst Saiger, were taken to hospital. A third rider, Dean Harrison, was unhurt.

'Keep in touch'

Mr Harvey helped Violet deal with the trauma of the incident.

"I'm passionate about the sport and try to keep in touch with anyone who is injured," he said.

In doing so, he was part of a team led by senior and middle-ranking PSNI officers which arranged for Ms McAfee to meet Saiger, the rider whose bike contributed to her injuries.

During the get together, the German rider presented the 44-year-old with one of his helmets.

Ms McAfee was one of the last major casualties to be treated in Northern Ireland by Dr John Hinds before his death in a motorcycle accident at a racing event in the Republic of Ireland six weeks later.

Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption Dr John Hinds was known as one of the so-called "flying doctors" of Irish road racing

He is keen to emphasise the dangers of motorcycle racing.

"I've seen it at the sharp end and know only too well of the potential consequences," he said.

He explained that when out of control, a motorcycle travelling at a speed of 100mph is like a 300lb (136kg) projectile going through the air at 146ft (44.5m) per second and that where it lands is very unpredictable.

The former senior incident officer has this advice for everyone: "Stay safe and enjoy the racing and always heed the advice of marshals."