'˜When I received the call my world just fell apart'

Ten years ago Sandra's life was turned upside down, as she waved her husband off to work for the last time.

Tuesday, 27th December 2016, 7:00 am
Updated Thursday, 29th December 2016, 3:03 pm
Flowers placed on the Welcome Home statue in the foreground with the Fleetwood lifeboat returning with wreckage from the crashed civil helicopter.

It was a night like any other for Sandra Potton.

Family members had been dropping in and out of the house, the clear up beginning after a busy Christmas. It was 27 December 2006.

She made husband Steve his dinner before he headed out of the door to work.

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Fleetwood lifeboat returns carrying wreckage from the civil helicopter.

It would be the last time she saw him.

Just four hours later Sandra’s life had been turned upside-down by tragedy.

“The last time I saw him was after he’d had his tea,” said Sandra.

“I can’t remember what it was, it was nothing special.

Steve (right) with father-in-law Fred Oldfield.

“He went off to work, just like any other day.

“I didn’t tell him I loved him or anything like that.

“I remember him telling me not to forget to tape Coronation Street, I think that was the last thing I heard him say.”

Steve, 52, was a helicopter pilot.

Sandra Potton, widow of helicopter pilot Steve Potton who died in a crash ten years ago

Based at Blackpool Airport he flew workers between gas rigs in Morecambe Bay, a job frought with danger, even if the couple didn’t admit it.

“I used to say he was a glorified bus driver and that’s how I thought of it.

“I didn’t think of the danger, although Steve was a helicopter pilot, you always knew at the back of your mind there was that risk.”

A phone call out of the blue changed Sandra’s life forever, a nightmare moment she will never forget.

Sandra Potton, widow of helicopter pilot Steve Potton who died in a crash ten years ago

“I got a call from one of his bosses,” she explained.

“Nobody came calling to the house, nothing like that.

“It was a phone call.

“They said the helicopter had gone down and there were seven onboard and that the lifeboats were out searching.

“I just went into a panic, I knocked on the neighbours’ window.

“Jill and her husband Rob and I explained what had happened. I managed to phone my sister Pat who worked at the helicopter terminal, I phoned her up and she came round to see me.

Fleetwood lifeboat returns carrying wreckage from the civil helicopter.

“Gradually we got hold of the family who had been heading home, then it was just a wait.”

With words from Steve in her mind, all Sandra could do was wait for work from the search operation, which had been scaled up to include Search and Rescue Sea King helicopters. Steve always said to me if it’s winter and we go into the water, forget it.

“Gradually I started to hear about them finding people.

“Every time I thought it might be Steve.

“The longer it went, the more I knew. But you just thought they might find him, not necessarily OK, but alive.”

That wasn’t the case.

At around 1.30am Sandra received the call she had been dreading, the news that Steve’s body had been found in the waters of Morecambe Bay.

He died along with co-pilot Simon Foddering, 33, from Preston, Leslie Ahmed, 48, from South Shields, Alfred Neasham, 57, from Co Durham, John Shaw, 51, from Kirkcaldy, Fife, Keith Smith, 57, from Stockton-on-Tees, and Robert Warburton, 60, from Heysham.

She said: “My world just fell apart. It was just horrible.

“I’d been drinking whisky all night to calm my nerves.

“I was just waiting for something.

“In truth, I just felt numb.”

Family members who had been heading home from the Christmas celebrations turned around and rushed to Sandra’s side, her house becoming a hive of activity as the recovery operation continued.

“If it hadn’t been for the family, I don’t think I’d have got through,” said Sandra.

“It was important to have them there. My daughter came round and they were there for me.”

A special service will be held today at Fleetwood RNLI on the Esplanade at 10.40am to mark a decade since the tragedy.

Ten years on Sandra, 61, still feels the absence of her husband around Christmas time.

But it’s nothing compared to the months and years of hurt following the accident.

She said: “It’s not like illness where you have time to prepare yourself.

“This was literally he was there one minute, gone the next. When they brought Steve ashore he was taken to the hangars at the airport but I couldn’t go to see him.

“He was so close.

“Then there was the inquest, during which we heard, in some detail how our loved ones had died.

“It was tough, a lot of the family members cried every day.

“But at least I knew for Steve it was over quickly.

“I’d hate to think of him drowning, suffering.

“It was over in seconds.”

That wasn’t the case for Sandra, who spent months in counselling following the accident.

But with help from cocker spaniel Dylan, bought six months after the crash, she gradually came to terms with the tragedy that rocked her life. Sandra said: “I had to go through counselling for what happened. It was very intense, twice a week for a long time. Gradually it came down to once a week, then once a fortnight, once a month and eventually I was able to bring it to an end.

“Life goes on but there’ll always be that something missing. Steve was unique. He was so full of life.

“I don’t think I’ll meet anyone like that again.”

Steve and Sandra loved to travel. And it was in one of his favourite spots Sandra laid him to rest.

She said: “We were lucky, luckier that most because we were able to travel.

“Steve loved holidays.

“The last one we went on together was to the Maldives.

“I remember he went diving with a whale shark, a massive thing. I stayed in the boat.

“After the funeral I took his ashes to Tobago, that was one of our favourite places.

“One morning I hired a little boat from a local and we took him out and scattered his ashes in the sea.

“He always said that’s what he’d have wanted, to be somewhere tropical, somewhere he loved.”

And gradually, with family and friends around her, Sandra has regained her strength.

She said: “I have a wonderful grandson now and he’s amazing. They aren’t blood relations but I see so much of Steve in him.He’s so happy, so loving, I’m reminded so much. It’s wonderful being a grandma.”

‘I wish Lauren knew him better’

For Lauren Potton the night of December 27 was the one and only meeting with her father in law.

Steve Potton’s son Andy called on him at Blackpool Airport as he prepared for the evening’s flight, one from which he would never return.

And he took with him his new girlfriend, the woman who would go on to be his wife.

Sandra Potton, Steve’s wife explained.

“Steve’s son was coming to the house.

“On the way he called at the airport, he wanted to introduce his new girlfriend to his dad.

“They came round here after and she was so lovely.

“That was the last time Andy got to see Steve and I’m glad he was able to meet Lauren.”

The couple moved to Calgary in Canada five years ago and married in 2014.

Sandra said: “That’s the only time she ever met her father in law.

“I cannot imagine how it felt to be thrown into all this tragedy.

“Steve was a wonderful dad, both to Andy and to my daughter Deborah.

“She wouldn’t have gone into the RAF if it wasn’t for him and she wouldn’t have the fantastic job she has now, at BAe in Warton working as a controller.

“I just wish Lauren had been able to get to know him better.”

Andy, 37, is unable to come over to the UK for the commemoration but has recorded a special video message which will be shown during the service.

‘Everyone seemed to know they had an important job to do’

Some moments remain burned in the memory long after they have passed.

One of those in the life of this writer came in the aftermath of the Morecambe Bay helicopter disaster.

As a 27-year-old reporter I was sent to Fleetwood lifeboat station from where rescue crews had been dispatched.

By more fortune than judgement my arrival co-incided with the return of the lifeboat and its crew.

They had spent many hours scouring the cold, dark waters in search first of survivors then bodies and wreckage.

On their return the grim task began of unloading what had been pulled from the water.

The wreckage was barely recognisable as a helicopter, the size of the fragments testament to the force of the impact.

Each item was carried by a crew member from the boat and placed inside the lifeboat station, barely a dozen pieces of metal and plastic, the largest a piece of seating from the cabin.

The atmosphere was heavy but everyone seemed to know they had an important job to do.

As an observer it was comforting not to be called upon to support the 
volunteers in their grizzly work.

The bond the crew members have since formed with the families of the seven men who died shows what an impact the mission made on their own memories.

It is one dark day in Fylde coast history which will never be forgotten.

Steve (right) with father-in-law Fred Oldfield.
Sandra Potton, widow of helicopter pilot Steve Potton who died in a crash ten years ago
Sandra Potton, widow of helicopter pilot Steve Potton who died in a crash ten years ago