Shoreham Airshow tragedy: ‘People looked at each other as the reality of what had happened sank in’

Content Editor for Sussex Newspapers Gina Stainer was at Shoreham Airshow with her family. Below is a personal account of how the tragedy unfolded and the crowd’s reaction.

Sunday, 23rd August 2015, 11:21 am
Gina Stainer at the Shoreham Airshow

I was bending over our picnic basket when my dad said ‘he’s crashed’.

I didn’t really take in what he’d said, I think I smiled at him, and he repeated it and said ‘he has’.

When I turned around and saw thick black smoke on the skyline, the smile left my face.

Gina Stainer at the Shoreham Airshow

People around us started to stand up, many walking slowly in the direction of the crash site.

Everything was quiet, people looking at each other as the reality of what had just happened sank in.

My husband Alan headed over to see what he could see, while I sternly told the children they couldn’t go as well, and tried my best to distract them with goodies from the lunch bag.

Crowds parted as police cars and ambulances moved through the showground and the voice over the tanoy said everything possible was being done.

People were reaching for their mobile phones, to share the news and check on loved ones, but all I got was a beep as the call failed to connect. After many frustrating attempts I finally got a call through to our newsroom. Our reporters were already on the scene, filing stories as more details of the horror emerged.

Being at the airshow that afternoon felt life being in a bubble. Without working phones, we had little idea of the scale of the incident outside, although the continuing closure of the roads around us preventing us from leaving, told us it was bad.

Words were exchanged in hushed tones with stallholders. ‘The plane came down in the road’, ‘did you see the fireball?’, ‘they pulled the pilot out, but other people have died’.

One trader told me: “I was serving a woman when it happened, she said ‘I hope that’s not my husband’.”

Everyone stopped and watched as a lone Vulcan bomber made a flypast, and applause rippled through the showground.

The moving tribute was only the second flight of the day that we’d seen, having arrived just minutes before the crash. Traffic queues had slowed our short journey from Storrington to a crawl, much of which had been made to the whiney chorus of ‘when are we going to get there?’

We had observed as we finally arrived at the airfield that the A27 was doing its best impression of a carpark - nothing was moving. That image came back to me when we learned that the plane had crashed onto the road in a rain of wreckage and fire.

Inside the airshow, the atmosphere remained remarkably placid and good humoured - we were resigned to the fact that we were going nowhere fast. Families sought shade around sideshow stall as the sun beat down during the long afternoon, and increasingly tired and bored children were entertained with games and ice creams. It was curious combination of fun and laughter, while the moment of the crash was replayed again and again in people’s minds.

“I can’t take in what I’ve seen,” my dad remarked, shaking his head. He said it brought back memories of a plane crash he’d seen when he was 12. That had given him nightmares.

Conversations were struck up as giant queues built up at the ice cream vans. A woman next in line to us said ‘we only saw one flight today, but how can you complain?’.

Mostly, people tried to make the best of the situation, catching a tan, enjoying a beer, and waiting for the hours to pass until the exits were reopened.

Pedestrians were allowed to leave almost immediately, but we were among the thousands whose car was trapped. When we’d arrived, the man on the gate had joked ‘if many more cars come in today they’ll be stacking them on top of each other’. And so we were parked well away from the exits, on the far side of the ground.

We got the airshow just before 1.30pm. They reopened the exits for cars to leave shortly after 6pm, when a sea of people moved towards the car park, deckchairs and picnic blankets under each arm.

We tried to avoid to initial crush, and hung back to let out the first wave. The strategy didn’t seem entirely successful, and we finally got out of the car park and home after 10pm.

As we sat in the car, waiting for our line to move, we watched the fairground being dismantled, the rides and stalls packed away. With no show taking place the following day, everyone was heading home.

I was grateful that my six-year-old son fell asleep in the car before we heard the headlines - seven confirmed dead.

Watching a video of the moment the crash happened on my phone as we travelled back, it seemed unreal. Our high hopes for another wonderful day at Shoreham Airshow ended with many memories - but not of the kind we had hoped.