Michael - Interview 35

Age at interview: 52
Brief Outline: In 2004 Michael's son, Lewis, was badly burnt. At the time he was working at a garage. Lewis died three days later. Michael and the other members of the family were devastated. Michael found most support from family, friends and through counselling.
Background: Michael is an engineering consultant. He is married and has 3 children (1 died). Ethnic background/nationality: White British

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In 2004 Michael’s son, Lewis, was very badly burnt when working at a garage. Lewis, who was 18 years old, was an apprentice mechanic at the time. He had not been given any training in Health and Safety. The manager had asked Lewis to pour some mixed fuel into a tank, which had a small four inch opening. It was windy, and Lewis’s overalls were soon covered in fuel. Some of the fuel vapour was sucked into a nearby gas flue, where it ignited and caused an explosion. Lewis was badly burnt and taken to hospital, where he had many hours of surgery, including skin grafts. Three days later, Michael and his wife were called to the hospital to see Lewis. His internal organs had failed and he was on life support machines. After a while Michael’s wife made the decision that the machines should be turned off and Lewis was pronounced dead.
Michael and the family were devastated by what had happened. Lewis’s funeral was held in a small church and was very well attended. Lewis was cremated and his remains buried in the cemetery.
The police, together with Health and Safety, started an investigation into the cause of the explosion and fire. Twelve months later they brought Lewis’s employer and manager to court. The owner of the garage and the manager were charged with manslaughter. The manager was found guilty and sentenced to nine months in prison. The owner was fined £10,000 and had to pay £15,000 costs.
Three months later the manager of the garage appealed his conviction. The appeal court judges ruled in his favour and said that he was not guilty of manslaughter because at the original trial some of the evidence was inadmissible. No one had actually witnessed the explosion, and when the owner and manager spoke to the police about what had happened they were not cautioned or told that anything they said might be used as evidence in court. Michael felt very angry about this reversal of the verdict and he felt that the legal system had let them down.
Michael got in touch with the Centre for Corporate Accountability, a charity concerned with the promotion of worker and public safety. Its focus is on the role of state bodies in enforcing health and safety law, investigating work-related deaths and injuries, and subjecting them to proper and appropriate prosecution scrutiny. Michael also got in touch with The Hazards Campaign who put him in touch with Families Against Corporate Killers, FACK. Michael now works hard to try to prevent other work related deaths. He finds it helpful meeting others who are also working to change what happens at work.
Michael had support from members of the wider family. Michael and his wife and daughter also had professional counselling, at different times, to help them with their grief. This was arranged by the NHS. Michael found counselling helpful, partly because he had found it hard to express his grief when talking to his wife and family. The family liaison officer was also very helpful. Michael also met a spiritualist, who helped him. He believes that Lewis is still around.
Michael was interviewed in 2009.

Some of Michael's colleagues avoided him for a while after his son died. They found it hard to...

What was it like for you yourself when you went back to work with colleagues, how did other people approach you, and react to what had happened?
I find most people tend to avoid you, because they don’t know how to deal with the situation. So they don’t know what to say. My boss called me in as soon as I went, and said, “Look you know, if at any time you feel you want to go home, just go home, you know? And if there’s anything that we could do to help, you know, just, just ask.” But a lot of people, for the first week, tended to avoid me, but I probably would’ve done the same in their situation, you know it’s very difficult to sort of know how to talk to somebody who has lost their, a member of their family, especially a child, you know it, but I think after the first week was over, and people saw that you know I was not the sort of gibbering wreck, I was getting on and doing my job, and everything else, and then people would come in, but they don’t approach the subject, you know of death, they tend to do a, “How are you?” You know, “Did you see so and so on the TV last night?” This sort of, sort of small chat.
Would you have liked them to actually talk about your son?
Yes, I mean, I wouldn’t mind. I mean there was some people did ask you know, and I told them. You know some people would ask you know about the court case, you know, you know, what was that like and, was I happy with the outcome, but overall I’d have to say that the majority of people tend to sort of just, you know, not see you, you know they if you were walking down a corridor they would walk in another door to avoid you. They would go to the toilet, and that lasted I think about three or four weeks, before people would start sort of coming back to some sort of normality.

Michael and his wife spent hours writing a Victim Personal Statement. Michael thinks the judge...

Were you asked to make a personal statement for the judge, or the court?
We were, we were asked. We were told to give, there’s a victims statement that we were told we would have, we’d have to read out. That was very difficult [writing it]. My, my wife did that actually because I just couldn’t bring myself to do it, and when we went to court the judge wouldn’t allow it. So we were a bit disappointed with that.
Could you just say a little bit more about the personal statement that your wife wrote?
Yes, the judge wouldn’t allow my wife to read it in court, although the members of the jury were all given copies of it, and the judge said it was, he wanted to spare my wife the anguish of actually going up and reading it out. But we spent four or five hours putting that together. There was a lot of tears putting it together and we wanted it read out, but the judge deemed that he didn’t want it done. But at least the jury got to read it. 

Michael decided to have some professional counselling because he found it hard to talk about...

I think about, oh, nearly a year after Lewis had died, I decided that maybe I needed counselling, and I approached the counsellor at the time and I went for I think it was twelve sessions, and this was done once a week, and it took about an hour.
Was this NHS counselling?
NHS counselling. Yeah.
Did you go to the hospital for that?
I went to the hospital yeah. It was the same hospital that had treated Lewis.
And what happened during a typical session?
Well we talked about, you know, how Lewis was killed, and my feelings towards the people that had caused his death.
And just, you know, how I was coping with it and, you know, she made me do stuff like drawings and things that at the time I thought to myself well this, this is stupid, you know, it’s getting nowhere. But towards the end, it, it, it’s like a jigsaw puzzle, it started to all fit together then, and so it did help me, and my son was having counselling as well, and we were sort of at the same time, you know different days obviously but we did that and then we sort of encouraged my wife to have it, you know, and she sort of, as we finished she was just starting hers, I think I was having two sessions and my wife had done about two then, but she, she, her, her sessions went on a bit longer than ours. But I think all in all it was good, you know, and it did help.
So that was professional counselling with the NHS?
It was professional counselling with the NHS, yes, yes.
I think just trying to get back to some sort of normality was hard. It was difficult; I found I couldn’t speak to my wife about what had happened to Lewis, and that’s what prompted me to do the counselling because I just wouldn’t speak about Lewis, I wouldn’t you know, I wouldn’t discuss things, it was just oh saying his name, it brought great pain back you know. All the feelings would come back and like most men, most men don’t like to cry, and I would find that just the mention of his name I would start you know filling up and ready to cry. I’d have to say the first two years was really hard, I wouldn’t say you get better at it, you just get better at dealing with it as time goes through. It still hurts as much today as it did back then, and we’re talking about 5 years ago. It’s a pain that’s always there, it’s always just under the surface you know, and it can be anything that brings it off, it could be a sad film, it could be something happening to something, something you say and you just start, but…
Did you allow yourself to cry sometimes?
I didn’t at first. It was really only when I went to the counselling and you know, and she said to me, “Don’t be ashamed you know, you know, its, it’s everybody’s right to cry and grieve over the death of one of their kids.” And I found, I found well, I found it hard to cry in front of somebody but as the counselling sessions were going on, every counselling session I cried, I think probably the only one I didn’t cry was the last one. Although I would be upset, but it was going through that process, of letting your feelings out, I found the hardest, I, I’ve always been a person for keeping personal things to myself and not showing emotion. When my brother was killed, you know, I don’t think I actually cried for that either. I went, the other side, I went to do the practical things, I went to sort out the death certificates, and the funeral arrangements and I got myself busy with that.
Why do you think you felt you couldn’t cry?
I don’t know. I, maybe it’s a man thing. I just, didn’t want somebody else to see me in tears you know. I’m a man you know, I should be sort of stronger with my feelings and hold it back. But that’s the hardest thing and it’s probably the worst thing to do.
I’ve now since learned that you let your feelings go. You know, it’s okay to cry, and sometimes I do.
And can you talk about Lewis with your wife and family now?
I can now, yes. I mean we talk about things that you know, things that happened in the past, we talk about things that, that happened now, and we say well, Lewis would’ve done this, and Lewis would’ve done that, so yes, it’s easier to talk about now, because it’s not bottled up anymore. You know I’ve taken the cap off.
So the counselling really helped you with that?
The counselling did help yes. And I, and I was a skeptic, I did think that, you know talking about my son’s death wouldn’t be any help, but there’s so much more to it than that.
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Michael joined Families Against Corporate Killers. He found comfort from working with others to...

I was lucky in the fact that the people I was working for at the time allowed me time off, and actually paid me for being off. So I was off for a good six weeks before I could actually go back to work, and that process you know everybody was very helpful. But if I can go back to the court, after the court case, we were very angry. Well, I was very angry and I know, like felt let down by the whole process. And I thought, well it can’t be the end, you know there must be something else that I can do, and I started then to look at websites, where people were injured and I came across a website up in Manchester which was a Hazards Campaign and I read through some of the stuff there.
The Hazards Campaign?
Hazards Campaign and I contacted, I e-mailed a woman there, and said, you know, look I’m interested in some of the things that you’ve been saying, and I didn’t hear anything for about a week, and then I got this e-mail from her saying, you know she was so sorry to hear what had happened to me, she was involved in a group called FACK, which was Families Against Corporate Killers, and if I was interested she would send me some stuff, so a couple of days later she sent me some bits and pieces, and then she sent me her phone number so I phoned her and we spoke and she then put me through in touch with [the woman who started FACK].
Do you find it comforting to be in contact with other people who’ve been through the same thing?
I find it comforting but I also find, [sigh] it, I find it’s helpful because these people are in the same position as ourselves. And they don’t want this happening to anybody else either. And they are committed to stopping it. And this is what I want to do, and I feel, I get a lot of support from that, feeling that I’m actually doing something to help prevent it happening to somebody else’s son or daughter. 

After an explosion at the garage Michael and his wife went to the hospital to see Lewis, who was...

Yeah, on the 19th February 2004 I received a phone call from the wife to say that there was an accident at Lewis’s place of work, and he was badly injured. And I was at the time working in Southampton, so I, I drove back and on the way back I could hear, I had the radio on and I could hear about the explosion. Not realising what was, what was I was getting into getting up there but I felt really bad because my wife was actually housebound, she’s disabled.
And she couldn’t get out of the house, and my daughter went up to the hospital and my wife warned her sister to meet my daughter at the hospital. I arrived at the hospital and I was greeted by a nurse who took me to a room and asked me if I was prepared for what I was about to see. And I said, “Well of course I, you know, I just want to see my son”, and she said, “Well you’ll have to wait about ten, fifteen minutes because the surgeons are with him at the moment, he’s being treated, and I said, “Is, is he alive?” And they said, “Yes, he is, you know he’s alive, but he’s received some bad burns.” About fifteen twenty minutes later , about that, sorry, at that time I was taken into another room and I met my daughter and my sister in law, and we sat together and the nurse came back in and said that we could come out and see Lewis. When we went out Lewis was asleep, they’d sedated him, and he was completely wrapped in sort of white blankets and some soot round his nose, but his face was, you know, unmarked and there wasn’t any burns on his face.
What was round his nose?
The soot, from the,
Oh the soot.

The soot from the explosion, where he’d breathed in the fumes and the smoke. But they said that was you know, we could only sort of see him and that was it, he had to be rushed off to a special burns unit. And they, we were just led away after that. So we came home.

And then we were told that the next day he was, they were going to have to do some operations to put some cadaver skin on him.
Transplant skin?
Transplant skin, to take away the burnt tissue and put fresh skin onto it. The operation would be about five or six hours, so we knew that was happening the next day, and every time we rang up the next day we were told he was still in surgery, and so we were getting a bit concerned because it was going on long, I think in the end he was in their sort of like ten, eleven hours, in the surgery. And when we went back up the nurse said well because he was such a strong lad they could do more, so they took the opportunity to replace more, rather than do it in two separate operations, they continued to do it in one. So I felt quite hopeful with that and they told us that they had to amputate one of his fingers because it was so badly burned you know he, he couldn’t use it, and we were sort of wondering you know how Lewis would cope with that, so we then left the hospital, came home, and everything was sort of quiet for that next day, and I think it was in the night, the night of the third night we had a phone call from the hospital, about 3 o’clock in the morning to say Lewis has taken a turn for the worse and we need to get up to the hospital. So we went up to the hospital and we sort of waited, we waited for about 4 or 5 hours before we actually got to see Lewis, and the doctor came and saw us and said, there’d been quite a few problems, Lewis’s internal organs had started to shut down and they didn’t think that you know he was going to last much longer. At that point we were actually brought into the room to see Lewis, and whilst we were in there the machine’s crashed and, you know, all Lewis’s vital signs stopped, and the Doctor said, “You know, we, there’s nothing more we can do, we need to, have permission to turn the life support off.”
Which I couldn’t do. So my wife had to make that decision. And well, they said that actually you know it he’s no longer here.
I’m so sorry.
So that was, that was the hardest part. And then you sort of, you’re in limbo you know you’re just you know it’s all sorts of things go through your head, and I was told I had to wait behind because I had to pick up the death certificate. And I thought, “Well, what’s so important about the death certificate. Can they not post it?”, but apparently you have to wait. So I waited for about 20 minutes to get the death certificate. And then we went outside and sort of cuddled each other, and then we came home. Its, it’s just such a hard thing to describe because it’s as if somebody reached inside and just wrenched everything like from inside you, you feel totally numb, and even just looking at my wife just reminded me of Lewis you know. 

Michael discovered that he felt better after he allowed himself to cry and he suggests that...

Have you got any message for other people who’ve been bereaved in a similar terrible way?
My message would be to, as I said, to let your feelings out, and do talk. I think it worried my wife, the fact that I didn’t talk about Lewis, I hid it all the time, and you know, and a few times she’d pull me up and say, you know, “Why don’t you talk about Lewis?” And it was, it was too hard to talk. Because I didn’t want to let my wife see me crying, because I wanted to be supportive to her, and I thought if I cried I was letting her down. So I would say to anybody if, just let your feelings go, it’s so, I mean despite how long you cry for you do actually feel better afterwards. 
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