A year after the crash

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.

Desreen Brooks

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.

Amy and Ben – two months after the crash

It was a fluke. I happened to see a tweet whizz through my timeline. It referred to a blog written by a widower. I thought it might have been the return of the chap in his 90s who’d briefly blogged his trip to Switzerland but had been overwhelmed by the response and abandoned it.

It was not.

The photo was the immediate giveaway although my eye took in the name underneath a split second later. There could only be one recently widowed husband of a woman called Desreen.

Life As A Widower is written by Ben Brooks-Dutton (he added “Brooks” to his and his son’s name after Desreen died – she had kept her name when they married, just 14 months earlier). His wife was killed in the collision on West End Lane last November.

The blog, which began on January 6th, documents his emotions and the enormous challenge of coping with overwhelming grief and a two-year-old son. This isn’t a diary as much as an anthology of memories and experiences. There must be an element of catharsis here, although my ignorant hunch would be that it’s too soon for that. There is certainly an element of wanting to share the experience, and hopefully to help others:

I can’t help but think that some poor bastard will wake up tomorrow morning, realise their wife has gone forever and that it wasn’t just a nightmare, and search for someone who can relate to the hell that they are going through. Perhaps if I keep writing they’ll find that someone. Perhaps a few more blokes will be encouraged to open up about how they feel. Perhaps the process might act as catharsis and make things easier on me. Perhaps when the next bloke calls Care for the Family there will be a few more guys to talk to.

More bluntly, Ben also says “I think opening up now is going to make living in my own head somewhat less difficult in the future. That’s what the books I’m throwing myself into say anyway.”

That last sentence hints at the humour in this blog. Does that sound odd? Read it, it’s not.

Ben explains his tattoo

Many of the entries are heartbreaking. It will be a harder person than me that doesn’t well up at the image of the toddler wiping away his father’s tears. As Ben says, “It’s just two guys trying to make each other feel better. One 2 and the other 33.”

Amy’s recovery
Meanwhile, across the pond, Amy Werner is having her own battle. The American postgrad who was badly injured in the same crash was put back together by St Mary’s in Paddington, before her parents decided to fly her back home to the US. These sort of medical flights don’t use long-haul aircraft, so Amy and her mother had to hop from London to Shannon to Newfoundland to Boston in early December. She spent a week in hospital in Boston and then she moved to a rehab clinic affiliated with Harvard.

She is making steady progress – her rehab work is both physical and cognitive. Every day she’s able to walk further using crutches, and her right leg – broken in the accident – is getting stronger. She’s also having speech therapy and other rehabilitation treatment to work on functions such as memory. At the moment, the cause for concern is the sight in her right eye, which has yet to return.

It’s going to be a long journey back for Amy, but her mother’s daily updates are full of optimism, and each one describes how Amy’s feisty attitude and determination is leading to demonstrable improvement in her abilities. I understand that Ben is also aware of Amy’s progress and hope that he can take some strength from her determination.

Both Ben and Amy had their lives turned upside down in a matter of seconds. If we can learn anything from either of them it’s to treasure what – and whom – we have; and that human beings are capable of remarkable acts when they find themselves at the very brink. I wish them well.

Can CCTV images help solve fatal crash puzzle

Today, police released three CCTV images from the night of November 10th. That was the Saturday of the car crash that killed Desreen Brooks and severely injured Amy Werner.

Police believe these are all vital witnesses in their attempt to find out exactly what happened at about 8.30pm that night.

The first is a moped rider who was heading southbound on West End Lane before doing a u-turn and riding in the direction of Finchley Road. It could be a fast food delivery moped, so if you’re a local business that uses delivery people, do look closely to see if you know this person.

Second, police want to speak to the driver of this silver BMW that stopped opposite the Overground station.

Finally, police also wish to speak to this man waiting outside the Overground station. He looks like he’s checking his phone.

Anyone with information should call the Road Death Investigation Unit on 0208 842 1817.

Two accidents on West End Lane

Yesterday was topped and tailed by two road traffic accidents at either end of West End Lane.

In the morning there was a collision involving a police car at the junction with Dynham Road (right by where the fatal car accident was last month).

Photo via Tim Blackwell
Photo via Chris Padfield
(I’m intrigued as to how that van parked in the driveway behind in the meantime)

According to local resident Yiannis Assiotis, the police car was heading north up West End Lane with its sirens on when it hit the Toyota, which appears to have been turning out of Dynham Road. The police officers got out of the car and helped the driver of the other car out from the passenger seat as the driver’s door was blocked by the police car. Yiannis reported that everyone seemed to be in one piece.

The VW you can see next to the bus was apparently already parked there. One reader, reported that when he walked past at 7am, it seemed to have been abandoned having hit the wall and badly dented the left front wing. Had the police car had to swerve to avoid it?

Camden police’s twitter account simply told me “A police car was involved in a minor collision with another vehicle… There were no injuries”

At around 6pm, a man appears to have been knocked down at the zebra crossing by Hidden Treasure at the northern end of West End Lane. Locals reported that it was just over an hour before an ambulance turned up although the man was being looked after by police officers and firemen. He was eventually taken away in an ambulance.

This time, @MPSCamden told me “officers attended an RTC [road traffic collision]… one male was taken to hospital with minor injuries.” I don’t know whether anyone has been charged.

Photo via Joseph Knight

If I hear more on either story I’ll be sure to keep you posted

Amy could fly home on Friday

I spoke today with Rich Werner, father of Vermont student Amy who was so badly hurt in the car accident on West End Lane a couple of weeks back.

Rich sounded more upbeat and the news that many of you have been asking about is that Amy continues to make good progress. She still has a long way to go. She’s breathing unaided now, and she can move her arm – seemingly in response to stimulus.

An American PA at the hospital very kindly arranged for two Thanksgiving dinners on Thursday night for Amy’s parents, and there was even a special Thanksgiving meal made for Amy, who is still receiving fluids only.

Her progress, and reasonably stable condition mean that she could be heading back to the US on Friday. This would be in an air ambulance and she would be transferred directly to Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston – part of Harvard Medical School.

As you can imagine, the Werners are excited at the prospect of going home, so fingers crossed that Amy’s recovery continues. They asked me once again to pass on their thanks to all the local people who’ve been sending messages of support and keeping Amy in their thoughts.

Dover,VT Fire Station sends its support

West End Lane crash: Can we help?

Since Tuesday, I’ve spoken to Ben Dutton and twice to Rich Werner. Ben is the husband of Desreen Brooks who died in Saturday’s accident on West End Lane in West Hampstead. Rich is the father of Amy who was badly injured in the same crash and remains in hospital. Rich and his wife Gina flew over immediately from their home in Dover, Vermont together with Amy’s grandmother.

It would be an understatement to say that both were gracious under incredibly difficult circumstances. I think – I hope – it helped that these weren’t interviews for an article; they’d already been through that a few times on Tuesday. They were calling because they had heard, via the police’s family liaison officer, of the strength of feeling expressed in the comments left on this website, and of local people’s desire to help in any way they could.

Terrible incidents like this generally bring out the best in people – a desire to do something, anything, to show they care; to show to those affected that this isn’t just another statistic. How that goodwill manifests itself almost becomes irrelevant, people just want to show support. For the families going through the hell that is a sudden bereavement or horrendous injuries to a loved one, their focus can be only on coping with what is happening at the time.

How incredible then, for both Ben and Rich to want to take the time to express their thanks to the locals who have shown them such kindness. Ben was very clear that any help people could give should go towards supporting Amy’s family, who are a long way from home. He and his son have a lot of family and friends close by – he was just realising how many – and are being well looked after, he said. He told me that he and Desreen had planned a day out on Saturday, and he fully intended to go ahead with that because he wanted to keep a sense of normality for their son.

Ben was also very clear that they would still be frequent visitors to West Hampstead – their best friends live here, indeed that’s who they were visiting last Saturday night. His positive attitude, and determination that their son would know what an amazing woman his mother was, was extremely moving.

When I spoke to Rich on Tuesday, Amy was in theatre. We talked briefly about where they were staying and whether there was anything we could do to make that more comfortable for them, but he said they were in good shape for now. However, they recognise that they could well be here for a while and that a longer-term option might be necessary. We spoke again yesterday. On Tuesday it sounded like he was making an effort to be calm; yesterday there was a genuinely more positive tone. Tuesday’s operation had gone well, and the surgeon had been positive about Amy’s progess. She is still in a serious condition but the medical staff are keeping her stable before the next operation, which has been pushed back a couple of days. Amy’s grandmother will fly back to the US today.

Amy and her mother in May 2011

“I can’t express enough how great everyone has been,” said Rich. “It’s been overwhelming. If we close our eyes for a few minutes, it’s like we’re back in Dover.” To feel so cared for that you could be at home, when you are in fact 3,500 miles away is testament to the quality of care they are receiving at St Mary’s. They’ve been to the site of the crash and seen the cards and flowers people have left for both Amy and Desreen.

He specifically asked me to thank two people who’d left comments on the blog. First, one of the doctors who’d been passing and stopped to help. In the chaos that followed the collision, a plastic bag containing a vintage ukulele that belonged to his grandfather and was being taken to be restored went missing. The doctor has posted about this, understandably nervous that it would seem self-serving in the wake of such a tragedy but explaining that it had huge sentimental value. I didn’t think it was self-serving – here was a guy who’d stopped to help victims of a road accicent, bit harsh to think anything other than good of him. Rich saw it the same way and told me to say that he was sorry that this good samaritan had lost the instrument and to thank him for all he’d done for both victims.

He also asked me to thank someone who simply signed off as “J”, with no other way of contacting them. J had sat with Amy and put a blanket over her while they waited for the ambulance. I don’t have kids, but I can still just about imagine that thought that your child is lying in the road and you are an ocean away but someone, some kind person, is holding their hand and keeping them warm. If you read this J, then know that Rich and Gina are immensely grateful.

As for what we can do to help, well, right now, very little. It’s not the answer lots of you are looking for I know. Feeling impotent at a time like this is frustrating, but it’s nothing to what the people immediately affected are going through. Rich and I agreed to speak again in a few days’ time when they have a clearer idea of what their needs might be. Then I’ll be badgering you all for contacts in the property business, or whatever it is we need. Until then, let’s let them focus on being there for Amy.

West End Lane crash: details emerging

Today, the police released the name of the woman who was killed in the tragic road accident in West Hampstead on Saturday night.

Desreen Brooks, 33, was with her husband and two-year-old son at the time. As the car mounted the pavement her husband Ben Dutton pushed their son out of the way and jumped clear. Sadly his wife was not able to get out of the way. Despite the best efforts of doctors who were passing and stopped, she was pronounced dead at the scene.

Desreen Brooks and Ben Dutton

American postgrad student Amy Werner, 23, was also caught up in the accident as she headed to Camden to meet up with classmates, and remains in hospital in a critical but stable condition. Her parents have flown over from Vermont to be with her.

The 83-year-old driver was taken to hospital but his injuries have been described as “not life threatening”.

Local residents have left many comments of support for both families – this accident has shaken the community, partly I think because it was so random and for those who live in the immediate area it was so dramatic. Lots of readers have asked how we might help, and I can tell you that the Family Liaison Officer is making the families aware of this level of support and if there is anything practically that we can do then I shall let you all know. Clearly both families have enough to deal with at the moment so it may be a little while before our help is needed.

The cause of the crash is still not known. Police are appealing for witnesses and anyone with any information should call 0208 842 1817.

The Evening Standard and Camden New Journal both have reports with extra detail.