Picture Gallery: Gorleston couple recount son’s life who died in helicopter disaster

THEY were on holiday in Devon when they heard their son was dead. They had been relaxing on a beach watching a rescue helicopter practising manoeuvres at sea.

It was sight which should have meant nothing; an event so easily forgotten. But when Paul and Joyce Harvey returned to their hotel that evening they were met by the unthinkable.

There was a phone call telling them their 28-year-old son, Stephen, was gone – one of 13 men on board a helicopter which had crashed into the North Sea during a routine flight from a gas platform to the Norfolk coast.

It was the Bristow helicopter disaster of 1981. There were no survivors and some men were never found.

This weekend marks the 30th anniversary of that fateful day and Paul, 82, recalled: “It was the day our world turned upside down.”

Sitting in an armchair in the family’s comfortable home in Gorleston, he admits there was a time when this conversation would have been impossible.

“It took us two years to come to terms with it,” he said. “But you never forget. Every day there will be something that will remind you.”

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His eyes drift around the living room where the walls are adorned with family photos – some of which showcase Stephen as a young man, a wide smile on his face, and a large mop of curly hair.

In the distance, there is a clinking of crockery in the kitchen where wife Joyce is preparing a spread of tea and cakes.

There is a silence for a little while, and then Paul begins again. There are tears in his eyes now, and a quiver in his voice as he is taken back to the time when Joyce knew something bad had happened – before they were given the shocking news.

“We were on holiday at the time with Joyce’s two sisters and my brother in law. I remember being on the beach and Joyce just jumping up and saying ‘Something has happened!’.

“We found out about the accident when we got back to the hotel, there was a message for us at reception. Our other son, Michael, had called and asked us to call him.”

It was then the couple faced their worst nightmare: how to get back home from hundreds of miles away. The whole group got themselves together and tried to prepare for what they knew was coming when they did reach Norfolk.

It was a long and painful drive.

Paul recalls: “It was on Thursday August 13, 1981 and 13 men were killed. Whenever I see that number I think of the accident.”

Joyce, 83, appears at the doorway carrying a tray with cups, saucers and an ornately decorated tea pot. She offers me a butterfly cake.

When I sit down, Paul is smiling again. He is a gregarious character, with an encyclopedic knowledge of Norwich, and an endless stream of fascinating stories about the time he spent working as a superintendent of the cemeteries in the Great Yarmouth and Gorleston area.

Joyce reminds me to drink my tea before it gets too cold.

The couple are in the process of trying to erect a memorial to commemorate the lives and loss of the 13 men who died that day.

Stephen had only been working for the gas company a month when the accident took place; employed by Amoco in the Leman gas field off the coast of Bacton.

It was a summer’s day, and the conditions for flying were good, but at 4.30pm the Bristow Wessex 60 helicopter suddenly fell 1,500 feet through the sky.

What caused the crash remains a mystery. However, some light was shed during the inquest when a tape recording of helicopter Captain Ben Breach’s final mayday call was played.

“Ditching...engine failure,” were his last words. The 51-year-old father of five was described as “probably the most experienced Wessex pilot in the world.”

It took three days before they found Stephen’s body, but some of the dead remain under the shifting sands at Happisburgh where the main body of the helicopter, including the engine, are still submerged.

The victims came from Caister, Elsing, North Walsham, Norwich, Thurton and Wymondham. No attempt was ever made to find the remains of the aircraft.

Why the cause of the accident remains a mystery is still something which troubles Paul.

He says: “A helicopter doesn’t just fall out of the sky. It should have come down gently and landed on the water.”

In the days, weeks and months following the accident, a major inquiry was launched leading to a number of safety improvements to helicopters and the Wessex model being taken out of service by Bristow.

Meanwhile, Stephen’s widow, Jill, was one of a number who campaigned for the helicopter wreck to be salvaged.

Paul made a plea to Amoco to come forward with information because he felt the company’s silence was deafening.

Days after the accident, there was a knock on the door and a visibly upset Amoco representative told them Stephen had been well thought of by everyone and he was personally saddened by their loss.

“I just felt numb at the time,” Joyce says, sitting on a chair close to her husband, playing with a napkin in her hands. “You go to work and feel like a zombie.”

“Whenever you see someone that has lost their children, or there is a helicopter crash, it always reminds me of what happened. There isn’t a day goes by that something doesn’t trigger it off. Sometimes you think about it two or three times a day.”

Born in 1953, Stephen was the eldest of three children.

“He used to have beautiful curly hair as a child,” Joyce said. “I remember one occasion when I took him to the hairdressers and he cried and cried about having his hair cut.”

While at high school, he developed a love for rugby and quickly established himself as a hooker for the Lakenham and Hewett Rugby Club.

And it was not long before his passion began to bear fruit at county and national level, with games for the Norfolk Colts and a trial for England.

These tales of their son’s sporting success bring instant light to Paul and Joyce. They point to a picture on the wall where Stephen is captured in action; a well-stocked athlete with a pensive expression, getting ready to deliver a spinning rugby pass or skip past a member of the opposing team.

Even now, Paul still looks for the results for Lakenham and Hewett who used to play a memorial match for Stephen.

Joyce speaks with warmth about the times Stephen would descend on their family home in Norwich with a group of rugby friends in search of food and a place to socialise.

She recalls one Christmas when she was cleaned out of sausage rolls and mince pies after Stephen and his friends came to their home when their game was called off because the ground was frozen.

“I would always say that my house was never cold when we lived in Norwich because there was always the boys here or their girlfriends.”

Stephen spent the majority of his working life as an electrician for Laurence and Scott where he completed a five-year apprenticeship.

He married wife Jill at St Mark’s Church in Lakenham, and the couple eventually moved to house in Thurton. They had been married five years before Stephen was killed.

There is a gravestone to commemorate his life at Magdalen Cemetery in Gorleston. It reads: “Loving you always, forgetting you never.”

“I often think what Stephen would be like if he was still here now,” Paul says. “He would be 58 years old and coming up to retirement. I imagine I would have more grandchildren.

“He was intelligent, probably because he took after his father,” Paul says laughing. “And he was well-liked by people, no matter what he did.”

Before I leave, I chat to Paul and Joyce about the photographs in their hallway. One is an austere picture of Paul’s father, a strong Christian, another is a young man standing in the sun while on holiday.

“That’s Stephen,” Joyce tells me. With his black shirt, chinos and squinting slightly in the sun, he could easily be any young man enjoying a carefree holiday, with no thought to what the future might hold.

And as I am about to leave Joyce reminds me: “This isn’t just about Stephen. It’s also about those 12 other men who lost their lives that day.

“We will never forget any of them.”

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