November 10, 2012. A 23 year-old American postgrad student at the University of Westminster is planning her evening out in Camden Town. It’s her first semester but already the small-town girl from Vermont has embraced big city living and has an eclectic bunch of friends.
In south London, a young couple and their two-year old son are looking forward to catching up with close friends north of the river.
Just after 8.30pm that Saturday night, Amy Werner, Ben Dutton, Desreen Brooks and Jackson Brooks-Dutton’s lives coincide with a truly dreadful accident. As Amy walks up West End Lane to get to Camden, and Ben, Desreen and Jackson leave their friends’ house, the driver of a Mercedes heading south down West End Lane loses control of his car.
The car heads straight towards the family. Ben’s quick reactions save his son, whom he pushes out of the way. He himself manages to jump over a wall, but Desreen is hit. It appears the car’s momentum isn’t slowed sufficently by careering into a brick wall and it continues, hitting Amy.
It’s a busy Saturday evening, there are plenty of people around who rush to help. Amazingly there are some doctors passing, who immediately try and save Desreen. The ambulance arrives incredibly quickly. It looks very bad. Desreen Brooks is pronounced dead at the scene. Amy is still alive but fighting for her life. The driver – an 83-year-old man – has to be cut from his car by the fire brigade. He is arrested, but later released without charge. The cause of the crash has still not been identified.
The events of that Saturday night will be forever seared into the minds of the people involved. In the four years I’ve been writing West Hampstead Life, no event has sparked the collective consciousness of the local community as this tragedy. Messages of support and condolence poured in. Offers of practical help too. There was a sense that this could have happened to any of us – just walking up West End Lane on a Saturday evening.
Nothing good came out of that night. What did emerge was a reminder that people’s immediate reaction to an event like this is to come together; to do whatever they can.
It didn’t take long for the story to escalate from the pages of a local website to the local papers to the nationals. The story naturally focused heavily on Desreen – and her husband found himself doing interviews and giving soundbites; but – as when I spoke to him – this wasn’t the husband of Desreen speaking, this was the PR professional who was in total shock and was falling back on his work skills. His grief would find another far more productive outlet in the weeks and months to come.
In the Royal Free – and then St Mary’s hospital – Amy was still critical. The police tracked down and rang her parents in Dover, Vermont. It’s a small town. The kind of place where people have a couple of different jobs. The fire chief is also a detective sergeant, and runs his own property business, for example. He also happens to be Rich Werner, Amy’s Dad. It was her mum, Regina, who took the call – they thought it was a hoax at first. Why would Interpol be calling them?
Flying long-haul is uncomfortable and tedious at the best of times. I simply cannot imagine how dreadful that flight from Boston to Heathrow must have beeen for the Werners. When they got to the hospital, Amy was still alive but she had already undergone major surgery. It would be the first of many operations.
As the days passed, Amy’s condition stabilised. In no sense was she out of the woods, but the prognosis improved. There began to be talk of when she might transfer back to a hospital in the US.
I met Rich and Regina, and Amy, at St Mary’s. They had been so touched by all the support from locals who had offered them accommodation, food, and whatever support they could give. In the end, they just wanted to be as near to the hospital as they could be, so stayed in their Paddington guesthouse. I was braced for Amy to look dreadful. She was in an induced coma and I’d understood her injuries were severe. In fact, she looked remarkably well despite the fractures to her pelvis, right leg, right arm, and face as well as serioius internal injuries. Taking her parents out for dinner seemed a ridiculously banal thing to do, but who wouldn’t want a break from hospital food!
Amy did fly back to the US – it took a bit longer than her parents had hoped to get the all clear, but soon they were able to make it back. It’s been a long rehabilitation for Amy. She has lost some of the sight in one eye and has undergone substantial therapy. Today, her family is having a gathering to celebrate her progress on the slow road to recovery.
Back in London, Ben Brooks-Dutton (he changed his name after the accident) began writing about his experiences of grief in a blog. Life as a Widower has become a totemic website helping people coming to terms with their own grief – especially the untimely death of loved ones who die young. It seems to act as a cathartic device for Ben too, with posts varying from the frank to the poetic to those he writes in the guise of his son.
One year after the accident he has written:
Today is the first anniversary of Desreen’s death and contemplating what to write has troubled me more than anything else I’ve published this year. The temptation to say nothing at all has been strong… The fact that 365 days have passed since my wife was killed is of no more significance to me than if she’d died 364 or 366 days ago. It doesn’t make her any more dead than she was yesterday and nor will it make me feel any more alive tomorrow. Of course this weekend has made me retrace painful memories and intensified my grief, but making it to the end of year one has not suddenly created the turning point that I might once have expected – that I might once have been led to believe it would.
A year is an arbitary amount of time, on which we place strange importance. Today is – as Ben notes in his own post – also Remembrance Sunday. While West Hampstead chugs along with a new craft market and protests about trees, it’s worth taking a moment to remember the accident of a year ago – celebrate with the Werners and commemorate with Ben and Jackson.