Rescuer's bid to save children's lives

By James MortlockA FATHER has told how he desperately fought in vain to save the lives of three young children and their mother after their car plunged into a 20ft drainage ditch and landed on its roof.

By James Mortlock

A FATHER has told how he desperately fought in vain to save the lives of three young children and their mother after their car plunged into a 20ft drainage ditch and landed on its roof.

Cortina Hamilton, 20, and her three young children – Jalin, five, three-year-old Alyssa and Malik, 22 months – died when their Honda Accord collided with another car before landing on its roof in the water-filled dyke.

Mrs Hamilton is thought to have been driving to RAF Mildenhall to pick up her airman husband when her car collided with the Vauxhall Vectra on the A1101 at Burnt Fen, near Mildenhall, at 6.30pm on Friday and was catapulted into the ditch.

Rescuers managed to get the children from the car and attempts were made to resuscitate them, but they failed and all three were pronounced dead at the roadside.

Their mother was trapped inside the vehicle and had to be freed by firefighters, but she was also declared dead at the scene.

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The occupants of the Vectra involved in the accident – a man who also works at RAF Mildenhall and a woman – escaped just seconds before it burst into flames, suffering minor injuries.

Among the rescuers was Alan Jones, who lives near the crash scene, and he told yesterday how he desperately tried to save the three children and their mother.

Mr Jones said the first he had known of the crash was when he had looked out of his window and saw a ball of flames.

"I pulled a coat on, got into my car and drove down there as fast as I could. I knew I couldn't get close to the burning car because of the heat, but I could see two other men in the ditch and scrambled down to the other car," he recalled.

"It was on its roof and only the wheels and base of the car were above the water – the rest was totally submerged. I waded into the ditch and as I got there, one of the children was passed to me. I just turned and passed it up to someone who had come along behind me.

"By the time the emergency services arrived we had got two of the children out. They began trying to revive them and we got the third out.

"One of the other men had got in through a window – he kept going under and releasing the seatbelts. I was up to my waist in the water and he was holding on to my legs, using them as a kind of guide to bring the children out."

Mr Jones, whose wife Bridget helped slow traffic approaching the scene, said they managed to get all three children out, but their mother was too severely trapped in the car for them to free.

"We were desperate to get her out, but the water was so bitterly cold. We were rushing to try everything we could. Someone even brought an axe to try to smash the doors off, but they were jammed up against the sides of the ditch," he added.

"The fire crews had to winch the car up so its wheels were resting on the side of the ditch before they could get at the driver."

Mr Jones, a father of four children aged between 11 months and 10, said the failed rescue attempt had left him feeling empty.

"When it was all over, I just walked down the street crying. I don't think me or my wife had any sleep. We all risked our own lives to save others and feel like we achieved nothing apart from getting them out of the water. They were under there too long for anyone to survive," he added.

"We went down to the scene today and put a little bear on the ground in the hope that if the father of those children does go down there it might help him. I want to let him know I did all I could – there was nothing else we could do."

Kay and Michael Sallis live only a few yards from crash scene and their son, Jeremy was also involved in the effort to save the mother and her children.

"My son took an axe down to try to get them out of the car and was quite traumatised by the experience. You never expect to see a dead child – let alone three dead children," said Mrs Sallis.

Passing motorist Yvonne Larkins, 47, of Folly Road, Mildenhall, was one of the first on the scene and helped try to revive little Alyssa.

"I was trying heart massage and taking it in turns with several other people – it was very tiring, but we kept going. It's still terrible to think about – we were talking to her, telling her we were doing all we could and willing her to respond," said Mrs Larkins, who laid flowers at the scene yesterday.

"Everyone tried their hardest – the medics told us that children can be very resilient and we should carry on, but it didn't work. She had been under the water for 15 minutes."

Mildenhall's tight-knit military community has united to support the stricken airman whose life has been torn apart by the accident and prayers were said yesterday for Mr Hamilton and his family at church services across East Anglia.

Captain Shane Balken, RAF Mildenhall public affairs officer, said the entire air base community was in mourning.

"It's a terribly sad day. Every time we lose someone, it hits the whole base, but to lose a family like this is just heart breaking. Our hearts and prayers are going out to the airman and his family," he added.

"We have a special team to make sure everything is taken care of for him, to make sure he and his family have what they need so there is no more stress to add to the tragedy.

"He will receive any support he wants – we have grief counsellors and we provide a chaplain to help comfort anyone who is bereaved.

"The base really does rally around when tragic accidents like this happen. It really pulls together to help the families concerned. The base bank will set up a fund so people can make donations and the squadron the airman is assigned to will have a memorial service."

Capt Balken said Mr Hamilton – whose first name has not been revealed, but who is attached to the 100th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron – was at the base yesterday.

But he was unable to say where in America the Hamiltons, who lived in the Ely area, had come from or how long they had been at RAF Mildenhall. Senior officers were now making sure relatives in the U.S. have all been informed of the tragedy.

"It is a very difficult situation because he will have no immediate family here to turn to. Having said that, our unit at Mildenhall is pretty tight and he has a lot of friends who are there to make sure he is getting all the support he needs," added Capt Balken.

"The mood at the base is pretty much shock at what happened. A lot of people are grieving. We are a frontline military base and our staff are trained to deal with the loss of comrades on active duty.

"But the loss of an airman's wife and three small children in these circumstances is very difficult to come to terms with. It's not normal and that is what makes it a lot harder to deal with. The mood is very sombre today and our thoughts are all with Mrs Hamilton's husband and family."

Sgt David Griffiths, of Suffolk police, said officers would like to hear from anyone who had seen the crash, particularly the driver of a dark coloured car – possibly blue – that was travelling towards Mildenhall at about the time of the accident.

Anyone with information about the accident should contact Pc Bryan Calver, of Suffolk police, on 01284 774152.

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