The Great Fire of Thurston.

May 11th, 2000 and something.

I’m minding my own business playing with a tractor on the airfield when the phone rings. It’s Sir Fortes-Olcorque with a sorry tale and a cry for help.

Fortes makes a living (though I suspect he is independently rather ‘wellorf’) by controlling pests and I’ve got to know him over the years because of his visits to the farm. He is also something of an expert in country matters and we have, on occasion, slipped out of a night to bag a few rabbits and hares for the pot. Anyway, his Range Rover has spontaneously combusted and is fast turning to liquid at the side of the road. The emergency services are quick to respond.

What makes it interesting for the fire service, police, environment agency et al, is that in the back of the car are 3 or 4 hundred rounds of mixed ammunition and quite a lot of rabbit gas pellets. You may know about Phosphine gas (in which case you would be unusual), but I’ll remind you of the details in any case:

1% is a lethal dose for humans, less than that can be life altering and a bit less still can cause you a lot of trouble. Pretty unpleasant stuff on the whole. The Phosphine is in tablet form and only becomes a gas on contact with moisture – this fact being the key to the fun and games that shape the day. The fire service in attendance? Yup, here we go.

What was Fortes’ bad day is fast becoming complete pants for everyone downwind of the fireworks and a swathe of the Suffolk countryside is promptly evacuated. Firemen are told to lie down and the press turn up.

My phone call comes at about 4.00pm when the heat is off – so to speak.

I listen attentively and spring into action. I insure my car for the now immobile Fortes and speed off to give a hand with the clean up. The wreck we load onto a trailer (provided by another chum) and then contemplate retiring to the pub to digest the day’s events.

Not a bit of it. Chap in a Big Hat collars us and informs us that we are now a toxic hazard – ‘yes; and?’ – and, we must be decontaminated and taken to the hospital for a minimum of 12 hours observation.We remind the Big Hat that it’s quite close to opening time but he is unmoved. We tow the wreck, followed by the various services, back to the Fortes-Olcorque country seat and watch with interest as the fireman rig up a decontamination unit. The idea is that we all strip off and get hosed down. Clothes are to be destroyed and we will be issued in their place, paper suits.

Amongst our number are a couple of girls so this promises to be a bit of a lark. However, at the eleventh hour, just as the girls are nervously fingering their shirt buttons, we’re down-graded to ‘casualty’ status and the fireman, at least those not still lying down, are stood down.

We decontaminate ourselves in Fortes’ shower and emerge wearing the paper suits. There is a short pause whilst we all tuck into fish and chips thoughtfully provided by the Chief Fire Officer. The ambulances turn up and we amble off (rather casually as I recall, considering all the hullabaloo) to the West Suffolk Hospital which is, in contrast, now on red alert and designated a sealed area in response to the emergency.

At the hospital we are prodded and poked. Quantities of blood are removed twice. There are 3 ECG’s at intervals for each of us, X-rays aplenty and finally, at 1.00am, we are shown our beds in the intensive care ward. We are hooked up to bleeping machines, oxygen and hospital radio and told to shut up and go to sleep.

In the morning, breakfast is served and by now we are all looking forward to being released as the official observation period is deemed over. I have a shave and receive the only injuries I have to show for the whole malarkey with multiple lacerations to the face – disposable razors provided by the National Health Service are not the finest quality. We’re released in our paper suits and Fortes has to slip out of the back of the hospital to avoid the local paparazzi. This is the last I see of him for the next 24 hours. I then receive a phone call to say that in moving the car and trailer, the burnt-out wreck has rolled off the back and smacked into the car I have lent him.

So, the upshot of all this is that I went to help a chum out of a hole, get gassed, end up in hospital, receive injuries to the face and then he smashes my car up.

I should have maintained a nodding acquaintance.

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