Leicester helicopter crash: A tragedy that stunned football - told by those who were there

By Simon StoneBBC Sport
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Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha's helicopter taking off from the King Power Stadium
Saturday, 27 October 2018 - Leicester had just drawn 1-1 with West Ham

Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha's helicopter took off from the centre circle. It was a routine sight. Leicester City's 61-year-old Thai owner would often fly out from the pitch after home games.

Srivaddhanaprabha, known by fans as Vichai, had bought Leicester in 2010 for £39m when they were in the Championship. He helped clear the club's debts, and the Foxes returned to England's top flight four years later. They then beat odds of 5,000-1 to claim the Premier League title in 2015-16. It was one of sport's most remarkable success stories.

On Saturday, 27 October 2018, Leicester played at home to West Ham. A 17:30 BST kick-off, the match finished in a 1-1 draw. At around 20:30, Vichai's helicopter took off. It crashed seconds later, coming down just outside the stadium.

All five people on board were killed.

This is the story of a tragedy that stunned football - told by four firefighters who were dispatched to the scene.

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The memories are as clear as if it happened yesterday.

Leicestershire Fire and Rescue Service's white watch reported for duty at 19:00 BST.

The watch manager was running late as he had been to the King Power Stadium to see his beloved Leicester City play against West Ham. Wilfred Ndidi had scored late for the home side to secure a 1-1 draw. Attention had turned to a farewell presentation for a colleague about to leave the station. Routine jobs were being done. A briefing, a cup of tea, equipment checked.

At around 20:30, the bells sounded. As with every incident received at the Central Fire and Rescue station on Lancaster Road, whoever is nearest the printer is the first to find out what the call is for, which fire engines will be attending and the personnel required.

"Because we are one mile from the stadium, we got mobilised. The bells were going, the blue lights flashing," said Dave Tennant.

"When it was announced what the incident was, we pretty much knew automatically who it was and what was involved," said Nick Lack. "A lot of the watch are great Leicester fans. The initial realisation of what had taken place was pretty impactful."

Fans hold up banners during the 'Walk for Vichai'
Before Leicester's home match on 19 October, hundreds took part in a walk to the King Power Stadium in memory of the crash victims

Nearly everyone in Leicester knew how the club's owner left games. Tennant used to point the helicopter out to his three-year-old son from his house in Wigston, on the outskirts of the city, four miles away.

"It is vivid in my mind," he said. "I used to sit in the back garden with my son and say 'there is Leicester City flying'.

"Sometimes we are sent out to jobs and what you are initially told is happening doesn't turn out to be 100% accurate. We heard it was a helicopter crash but we had to treat it like any other job.

"That night, I was in charge of the second appliance. We were told there had been multiple calls, which is a good indication the reported incident has actually happened and that there were people on board the helicopter.

"The King Power Stadium was the address we had. But the stadium itself is vast. As we approached, I clocked the smoke on the left-hand side. I remember the driver saying 'whereabouts, any idea?' I remember saying 'left, left, go left'. There were still people walking. The police were there."

The crews were on the scene within minutes of the helicopter crashing.

At that point, there was no thought of who was involved. This is when training takes over, as Joe Robinson recalls: "You just go into work mode. It was an obvious scene. There was fire to deal with. It was a helicopter.

"It is hard to describe your feelings at that point. It is a cliche but it is something we get used to. People in other lines of work get used to certain things in their day and for us, it is not normal, but we learn to deal with it.

"And we are there to save everybody - it doesn't matter whether it is the chairman of a football club or a homeless person. We are there to rescue someone or make the situation better. In the moment it is a helicopter crash with people on it.

"The bigger picture came afterwards with all the media coverage. That is when it sinks in."

"I had friends who are Leicester fans, sending me messages asking me if I was there and if I could tell them anything," said Tennant. "There is nothing you can say until the names are released. The families need to hear information first from the right channels."

Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, Kaveporn Punpare, Nusara Suknamai, Izabela Roza Lechowicz and Eric Swaffer were killed in the crash
(l-r): Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, Kaveporn Punpare, Nusara Suknamai, Izabela Roza Lechowicz and Eric Swaffer were killed in the crash

As the situation changed and reinforcements arrived, control of the situation was handed over.

A sense of loss took over for Robinson. "We are here to make things better," he said. "When something isn't better… it doesn't feel like you have failed but when there is a loss of life, it is not far off.

"I am not a football fan, so the attachment to football is not there for me. I understood everything Vichai did for the city and the club and it is sad he is not with us any more. But we are very quick to think of one person and not the other four who were on board. They had families as well.

"It is just a sad situation. We have been to incidents time and time again since. You can't carry that burden around with you. You just can't. There is not enough room for it."

Another member of the crew, Russ, was not working that night. He had been to the game though. And he could see the effect the event had on his mates when he returned for duty.

"You could visibly see it had been hard work; seeing it on the news all the time, the profile of it, the exposure to it all. It had stirred emotions in a lot of people. The member of our team who was supposed to be leaving that night came back for a little bit to spend time with the watch, because he needed to be around everyone else who had experienced the same thing.

"The service were very good at getting in touch and telling us there were things available if we wanted them. But there is nothing better than talking among yourselves."

Flowers left in tribute to late Leicester owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha following his death
Fans left flowers in tribute to Vichai - who they affectionately referred to as 'The Boss'

The group decided to bring some kind of closure to their experience by doing the Leicester Half Marathon earlier this month.

Their plans had to be altered when the race was cancelled because of poor weather. With money pledged for the Vichai Foundation and the Firefighters Charity, Leicester City came to their aid by allowing them to run round the pitch - 63 times - to fulfil their promise.

"This time last year I was training for the London Marathon," said Tennant.

"It is weird, but it is something that sticks in my mind. The training was horrible. I did some really long runs, really boring. This particular time, I finished late at night and I knew Leicester had been playing. I was catching my breath at the end of the run and the helicopter came over. You can see the lights, you know it is a helicopter and you think 'I know who that is'.

"That was the last time I heard it.

"I guess that is why it just feels personal. It was a completely different night."

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