On Monday, it finally began. The inquiry into one of Scotland's most bizarre fatal accidents is underway, nearly 2,000 days after the event. The crash of a Police Scotland helicopter into the roof of one of Glasgow's oldest and most celebrated bars, the Clutha, is finally being investigated in public – more than five years after it happened.
Ten people died, including the pilot and his two police observers in the aircraft. Thirty one were injured within the Clutha, apart from the seven who died when the roof fell in on a busy Friday night.
The Crown, and Sheriff Principal Craig Turnbull – who is heading the fatal accident inquiry – have been at pains to state that there will be no criminal proceedings resulting. The tone is to be 'inquisitorial, not adversarial'. Nevertheless, there are an army of lawyers – 14 legal teams as well as the Crown – settled at inquiry HQ, a large room within Hampden Stadium that is reserved normally for corporate hospitality during football matches and rock concerts.
The number of witnesses expected to give evidence has been whittled down over the months of preparation and preliminary hearings, but will nevertheless total more than 50. There are 1,400 Crown productions and the police took a total of 2,000 statements. The inquiry is expected to last at least until August – some observers think it will take longer – partly because there are periods when proceedings will be broken up; the stadium authorities need their space back for events such as the Scottish Cup Final, a Scotland international against Cyprus and two shows from Pink's 'Beautiful Trauma' world tour.
Hampden was chosen because the inquiry's legal entourage was too big for Glasgow's busy courts. It is fair to assume that the public and press benches will also remain fairly busy throughout.
The inquiry opened on Monday with a minute's silence. There followed a series of tributes to some of the deceased, written by friends and relatives, and read eloquently by various legal representatives. They provided brief ghostly snapshots of lives interrupted, lost in a freak moment. Mainly middle-aged men, enjoying a pint and some live music on a Friday night, usually with friends. Most of them were Clutha regulars, attracted to the little Clydeside pub by its sense of community, its humility, and a popular local ska band who were playing when disaster struck.
Samuel McGhee, a bus driver, was born and bred in Castlemilk housing scheme, and brought up his own family in the same house. Widowed in 2007, he had struggled to cope, and had been out of work for some time before finding a new job in August 2013, just a couple of months before his fateful visit to the Clutha in November. His daughter Kerry remembered him as a hard worker and a popular neighbour within a tight-knit community.
Colin Gibson, 33, was remembered by his mother, Ann Glasper, as someone she felt 'lucky to know'. The Border Force employee had gone to the Clutha to celebrate a colleague's birthday. 'He had many plans for the future and we will never know what he would have gone on to achieve,' she added.
Sisters Michelle and Kim described their late brother Gary Arthur as 'a loveable rogue' who revelled in the successes of his children Chloe and Ryan and nephews William and Matt. 'We will remember Gary as a much loved person, and not just as a victim of the Clutha,' they added.
Robert Jenkins, widowed in 2006, was a man who celebrated life. A former National Savings Bank and Scottish Gas employee, he completed the West Highland Way twice, and spent much of his time enjoying cinema at the Glasgow Film Theatre, or researching cinema at the Mitchell Library for a friend who was compiling a book. He was such a frequent contributor to the Herald newspaper's letters page that the paper published an obituary.
His partner of five years, Mary Kavanagh, was introduced to the Clutha by Jenkins because of their mutual love of live music. Her representative, Donald Findlay QC, quoted her concluding point: 'All Mary Kavanagh wants to know is why she went into the bar with the man with whom she was going to spend the rest of her life, and why she left alone'.
John McGarrigle was something of a legend in his native Castlemilk. As a writer, poet and activist, he was a regular at the Clutha – 'a pub without pretension', as his son, also John, described it. McGarrigle first became interested in the arts after assisting a blind friend to a Workers' Educational Association meeting in Castlemilk during the 1980s. He became active, contributing to 'The Big Flit', a book about the shifting of large communities to the peripheral schemes of Glasgow during the post-war period. He was described as a 'tell it as it is' poet. Son John described him as his 'hero'.
Ian O'Prey paid tribute to his son Mark, also among the dead, saying that his obsessions were judo, music, Celtic Football Club, and the beauty of the Scottish Highlands. Mark detested hypocrisy, his father said, adding: 'I am grateful for the one minute's silence today, but after five and a half years of apparent silence from the Crown it is of no consequence to me personally'.
The inquiry itself got underway with evidence from several witnesses, all within walking distance of the Clutha, who had seen the helicopter descend and heard its engine failing during its fateful final moments. By their various accounts – from Gallowgate and King Street to the north and from the Gorbals to the south – the engine had spluttered before falling silent, and they could only hear the 'swooshing' of the rotor blades.
The evidence from Air Accident Investigation Branch witnesses – whose report blamed pilot error in 2015 – was due to begin as SR went to press.
The victims of the crash included bar customers Gary Arthur, 48; Joe Cusker, 59; Colin Gibson, 33; Robert Jenkins, 61; John McGarrigle, 57; Samuel McGhee, 56; and Mark O'Prey, 44. The helicopter crew included pilot David Traill, 51, and police officers PC Tony Collins, 43, and PC Kirsty Nelis, 36.
Maurice Smith will be attending and reporting on the Clutha FAI each week in SR