Student died while waiting for almost two hours to be removed from car in Thetford crash
12:21 18 January 2013
A bride-to-be was trapped in her car for almost two hours as her life ebbed away in an accident which has raised a string of concerns about the ambulance service.
Catherine Barton died after her black Ford Ka crashed with a Volkswagen Golf on the B1107 Brandon Road in Thetford on August 5, 2011.
Yesterday, 17 months after the 27-year-old’s death, police officers and firefighters spoke of their concerns at what happened at the scene.
No ambulance arriving to help the four people injured in the critical crash for 35 minutes;
Repeated attempts by the fire service and police to get more medics to the scene failing;
No doctor arriving until almost two hours after the crash;
One ambulance arriving with no fully-qualified paramedic onboard;
Firefighters being left to treat Miss Barton as she lay dying;
15 firefighters on the scene before a single paramedic arrived.
Yesterday, at the inquest into the student veterinary nurse’s death, paramedic Fiona Turner who was at the scene of the accident admitted she was “overwhelmed” and did not understand why more help had not arrived sooner. Police officers and firemen spoke of their “astonishment” at the lack of medical assistance, with one fireman recalling he had never witnessed such a poor response in his 21 years in the service.
Miss Barton was driving her friend and brother’s girlfriend, Hannah Roper, home to Brandon after an induction session at a gym and trip to Tesco in Thetford.
Travelling in the opposite direction from Brandon was Trevor Pointer and his friend Craig Keeling.
As Mr Pointer travelled down the B1107 towards Thetford golf club he reached a part of the road known locally as the Big Dipper.
In front of him in the road was an animal, believed to be a deer.
Mr Pointer touched his brakes and swerved around the animal. But as he turned back into his lane he saw headlights coming in the opposite direction and lost control of the car.
“The car was snaking,” he recalled yesterday. “I was fighting the car to keep it on my side of the road. Before I knew it me and the other car have just met.”
Miss Barton and passenger Miss Roper were both stuck in the Ford Ka, injured but conscious, with their legs trapped by the car’s dashboard. Lynn Shelley, who was travelling behind the Ford after a late-night trip to Sainsbury’s, pulled over, spoke to Mr Pointer and dialled 999 at 10.03pm.
Firefighter David Pleszko was in the first fire engine to arrive at 10.13pm. He rushed to help Miss Barton, who was still conscious, felt her pulse and spoke to her. “She appeared to be in a very bad condition,” he said.
A second fire crew soon arrived and removed the Ford’s roof. They waited for the order from the ambulance service to take Miss Barton and Miss Roper out of the car. But the order never came. “On numerous occasions I asked the watch manager when the attendance of the ambulance would be,” Mr Pleszko said.
Twenty minutes after the fire crews arrived, Fiona Turner came in the first ambulance on the scene. She attempted to get fluids into Miss Barton through a drip, but struggled to find her vein. According to two firefighters the fluids were not passing into her blood stream.
“She left the care of Catherine to me and my colleague,” Mr Pleszko said. “I don’t know where she went.”
But Miss Barton’s condition deteriorated. “I couldn’t find any signs of life,” Mr Pleszko said. “I immediately voiced my concerns to Fiona. At this point she was in the passenger seat of the Ka treating the passenger.”
According to the firefighter, he was reassured by Mrs Turner that Miss Barton’s skin colour was fine and her blood oxygen levels were also stable.
But the clip monitoring her blood oxygen levels had fallen off her finger and was giving a dangerously low reading of 78pc.
Mr Pleszko, a firefighter for nine years with medical training, said the clip was put back on Miss Barton’s finger but stayed at 78pc.
The paramedic denied that she thought the reading was safe and said the levels had gone up to the high-nineties when the clip was back on the finger. “We grew increasingly concerned,” Mr Pleszko said. “Normally we extricate [the passenger] quite quickly. I have been to numerous fatalities. I have never had one where I have fed information to a paramedic and it has been ignored. I have never come away from an incident with that feeling of frustration.”
Firefighter Simon Bunning, who was supporting Miss Barton’s back, told the inquest that it “felt like an age” before more medical help arrived.
His boss, Paul Seaman, who was also called to the scene, said: “In my 21 years I have not experienced that delay in land ambulances arriving.”
He added his crews were soon ready to get the passengers out of the Ford but were waiting for the order from the paramedic. The arrival of the fire service was followed by the police.
PC Scott, from Norfolk’s road policing unit, said: “The fire service was there and ready to extract them from the car. She [Catherine] was getting worse and worse. I asked if she was breathing or had a pulse but he [the firefighter] shook his head.
“No attempt was being made to get the women out of the car. I found it distressing to see that the casualties did not appear to receive the level of care that I expect.”
He said that for the first time in his eight-year career in roads policing he was given no reply when he asked the paramedic, Fiona Turner, what the condition of the casualties were.
PC Chris Tremlin was the first road traffic officer on the scene, arriving about 20 minutes after the crash.
He called for three ambulances and a critical care team at around 10.30pm, but the care team did not arrive until about 11.45pm. When they did arrive, they said that they had only just been told to come, according to PC Tremlin.
The police officer told the inquest that the phone operator had challenged him as to why he needed the critical care team – something that he said could have been down to the operator’s inexperience. “I was astonished it took so long,” he said.
“My main concern was the lack of attendance from ambulance staff,” he added. “It was immediately obvious that the two young ladies in the front of that car were in a life-threatening condition.”
The first medic on the scene was a volunteer first responder called David Shea. He arrived at 10.22pm but told police and the fire crews that he was not qualified to order the extraction of the casualties in the Ford and instead helped the two men injured in the Volkswagen.
Eventually Miss Barton was pulled out of the car at about 11.40pm, but she had a cardiac arrest. She was pronounced dead at 12.22am on Saturday August 6.
Miss Barton, from Rowan Drive in Brandon, would have celebrated her 29th birthday on Tuesday, January 8 with her newly-wed husband.
The couple would have married in July last year.
The inquest continues.
•Paramedic: “I was overwhelmed”
The paramedic charged with treating Miss Barton and three other casualties injured at the scene yesterday said she was “overwhelmed” by the accident.
Fiona Turner had been a paramedic since September 2009 when she was called to the B1107 with student paramedic Colin Murden on August 5, 2011.
Sobbing as she gave evidence at the coroner’s court on Thorpe Road in Norwich, she said: “It was an alarming situation. I had never been first on scene at anything this serious before.”
When she arrived at the crash near Thetford golf club at 10.34pm, a first responder told her Miss Barton was the priority.
Police also told her they had requested more medical help which she described as a “relief”.
Mrs Turner treated Miss Barton first, checking her airwaves and her breathing with a stethoscope.
She said she followed procedures, but did not remove her T-shirt to check the student veterinary nurse’s chest as she wanted to “preserve her dignity”.
She struggled to get Miss Barton on a drip, stating that her patient’s body was starting to shut down.
Mrs Turner told the coroner’s court she wanted to get the passenger, Miss Roper, out of the car first so that they could then remove Miss Barton.
She said that she also had to look after three other casualties and added that if she had taken the casualties out of the Ford sooner and off to hospital, there would have been no ambulances or paramedics left on the scene.
“The wreckage was restricting the blood loss,” she said. “I knew as soon as she [Miss Barton] moved, the blood pressure would drop.
“I constantly expected another ambulance to arrive with a paramedic.
“I had nowhere to put all of them [the casualties].”
The inquest heard that the Volkswagen driver’s injuries could have been life-threatening and Mrs Turner was reluctant to leave without another paramedic arriving.
“By the end of it I was exhausted and devastated,” she said.
“I didn’t come into the ambulance service to have patients die in front of me. I needed more pairs of hands on the scene.”