“THE first time I realised how bad things were,” recalls Karen Sherwood, “was when I was driving through Chapeltown and I was overtaken by a police boat.
“I remember arriving home and seeing a river running right through my house. I thought ‘Oh’.”
It is five years next week since the Great Flood of 2007 wreaked havoc across Sheffield.
But it is little wonder such memories remain horribly fresh.
The facts alone from that fateful day, June 25, are still shocking: two people dead, 1,473 homes damaged, 1,000 households and businesses evacuated and 4,650 calls made to the emergency services – all in just 24 hours. In parts of Hillsborough the floodwater, caused by record rainfall, swelled to six foot deep. In Meadowhall Road, it topped eight. Both the RAF and Peak District Mountain Rescue were called in to airlift dozens of people from roofs, while the eventual clean-up costs are estimated at £1 billion.
But, beyond such numbers, it is the sheer scale of human heartbreak which remains the disaster’s most devastating legacy.
The parents of Ryan Parry – the 14-year-old of Moorland Road, Gleadless, who was swept into the River Sheaf – say the pain is still too fresh to speak about it.
Three passers-by, meanwhile, who tried in vain to rescue widower Peter Harding from rising waters in Newhall were left shattered when the 68-year-old of Carwood Green, Pitsmoor, suffered a heart attack and was pronounced dead.
For others – notably households in Doncaster village Toll Bar – the pain came in being left homeless for more than a year afterwards.
Karen, of Vere Road, Hillsborough, considers herself one of the lucky ones. She spent just eight months out of the house.
“The only thing you could compare it to would be the Blitz,” says MP David Blunkett, whose Brightside and Hillsborough constituency bore the brunt. “I was born after the war but that’s what people kept referring to.
“I remember going into Forgemasters, in Brightside Lane, the day after and seeing how the water had literally picked up machinery and smashed it into walls. It was a vivid example of how powerful nature is.”
Even with hindsight and taking into account prevention measures taken since, few could have predicted what was to happen that day.
Overnight rain had led to areas of Penistone Road, Chapeltown and Ecclesall being submerged. But, even at that point, what was to follow seemed inconceivable.
At around 2.30pm, reports emerged that office workers in both Brightside and Neepsend were stranded as the River Don burst its banks. Shortly after explosions were heard from Firth Rixson in Meadowhall Road as water poured in to the site.
“It was like the apocalypse,” says South Yorkshire Police Chief Inspector Adie Brown who was on the scene. “On the one hand you had water surging everywhere but there were also fire and cylinders exploding.
“We evacuated the area but at one point one of our own PCSOs had to hang on to a lamppost in deep water. Officers then had to go waist deep to reach a mother and baby trapped in a car.”
Within the hour, across town, The Wicker and Kelham Island had flooded, Sheffield Train Station had been evacuated and city centre roads were grid-locked. By 4pm, 30,000 homes were without power after an explosion at a substation. By 5pm the Don Valley had flooded and the River Sheaf had burst its banks. Reports were also coming in that at least two bridges were in danger of collapse.
“We had never seen anything like this before,” the then Temporary Assistant Chief Constable Paul Broadbent told The Star.
He was ‘gold commander’ that day and ended up working for 26 hours straight.
“To have a young boy missing, rivers bursting, Ulley dam at risk of breaching and Sheffield at risk of losing all its power all at the same time was challenging,” he noted afterwards. “One of these incidents on their own would have been serious enough never mind all mixed together.
“The scenes were remarkable – people being airlifted from properties, raging torrents of water, stranded cars being swept away and piling up on top of each other. And then the following day there was an eerie silence, much of the water had gone and there was just destruction everywhere.”
Like a movie scene is how Sheffield City Councillor Bryan Lodge describes the incident. As cabinet member for transport he spent the day in the emergency control room.
“I did a radio interview warning residents if they were safe and warm to stay where they were and not go out,” he says. “It was 2.40pm and I hadn’t heard it so we called the station and they told us it was for the 4pm news. Well, that was too late. By then the city was under water.
“I remember us getting one of the cameras turned around so we could see Forgemasters and we just saw waves of water running out of the gates. I could not believe my eyes.”
Worse was to come. At 8pm, police confirmed they had found a body of a teenage boy in the River Sheaf. It was Ryan Parry. Three hours later, Peter Harding was named as a second victim. And then almost as quickly as it arrived, the water disappeared.
“It was like someone pulled a plug somewhere,” says Jeanette Rodgers, landlady at The Ship Inn in Shalesmoor where temporary relief was provided for people evacuated from nearby homes. “It was a relief but I suppose that’s when the work had to start.”
It did. The council co-ordinated a clean-up operation in the immediate aftermath while some £10 million was spent relaying roads. A flood defences has since been built at Kelham Island with a second currently under construction for The Wicker and a third in Lower Don Valley scheduled to be built next year.
Dozens of businesses, meanwhile, set about the task of rebuilding. Forgemasters was back running within weeks, while Meadowhall partially reopened six days later.
Similarly, Kelham Island Museum, although not fully restored until May 2009, welcomed school visits that autumn and several pubs in the same area showed their defiance by having a river festival later in the summer.
Homes took longer to restore with many people still in temporary accommodation 12 months on. Toll Bar where several residents lived in caravans for a year was only the most symbolic example of those struggle.
Yet for all the hardships, the county showed a real refusal to be beaten. Those Blitz comparisons, it seemed, were true of the spirit of Sheffielders too.
“The story of the Great Flood is one of bravery, stoicism and the never-say-die attitude,” this paper declared shortly afterwards.
And it seems that was right.
David Blunkett again: “The response was Sheffield at its absolute best. You’d expect it, of course, but it made you proud.”
Karen Sherwood, aged 44, lives in Vere Road, Hillsborough, with her husband Chris Butler, 43, and sons Joseph, 11, and Daniel 8.
The family spent eight months living in temporary accommodation after the flood.
“I’d been working in Bradford that day with my phone off so I hadn’t realised what was happening - but I soon did. I’d been left me a message telling me the house was in danger of flooding and when I called Chris he wasn’t sure what to do.
“I said ‘For God’s sake, get out - and get me some clean underwear’.
“The kids were safe. They’d been picked up by a friend. Chris had to wade out, though. There were rescue workers helping old ladies and he remembers thinking ‘I wish someone would help me’.
“It took me seven hours to get home but the first time I realised just how bad things were was when I was driving through Chapeltown and I was over taken by a police boat.
“I remember arriving home and seeing a river running right my house. I just thought ‘oh’.
“We spent the night at a friend’s house. There was no electricity. The radio kept saying check the website for updates and we were screaming: ‘we can’t’.
“Seeing the house next day was devastating. The water had only reached about six inches but everything was ruined. The smell was horrendous. We ended up living in a rented house for eight months.”
South Yorkshire Police Chief Inspector Adie Brown was response team inspector on duty the day of the flood. He worked an 18 hour shift.
“I will always remember arriving in Meadowhall Road and seeing a silver Volkswagen being swept down the River Don.
“Initially we were trying to divert traffic because water along Meadowhall Road had risen to eight foot. Members of the public had to be helped from vehicles.
“It was like the apocalypse. “Firth Rixson steel works was breached by the floodwater and the furnace blew up catching fire in the process. It was strange. On the one hand you had water surging everywhere but there were also fire and cylinders exploding. They kept shooting into the air and falling near us. Thick acrid smoke made it hard to breathe.
“People at Meadowhall interchange were in danger and the centre itself was also being filled with smoke and water. I ordered the closure and requested the trains to stop running.
“We then went to Brightside as assistance calls were coming in.
“At one point one PCSO had to hang on to a lamppost in surging water. Officers then had to go waist deep to reach a mother and baby trapped in a car.
“One officer had to be rushed back to base as he was suffering from hypothermia. He was soaked and had become ill. Once recovered he came to help out again.
“The Wicker and city were now critical. I took eight officers there on the tram. We spent the next few hours helping people out of the water. All our officers were in it up to their waists and in wet clothes for about 12 hours, most without food - but I have no doubt they prevented further loss of life.”
Peter Birtles, aged 65, is group director at Sheffield Forgemasters International. He was among 50 staff trapped at the Brightside Lane site.
“The rain had been heavy but sporadic, and the real surprise was how rapidly the River Don rose where it passes through our site.
“We quickly realised it was not going to abate which was bad news because if molten steel comes into contact with water it causes an explosion. We therefore took emergency measures to empty the arc furnace of molten steel and also isolated all electrical machinery.
“Most staff left the site safely but senior management, including myself, were stranded and took refuge in the upstairs offices. There were also members of the public who’d sought safety from Brightside Lane.
“The helicopters rescued some people from the roof and some were even picked up in a life-raft but most had to stay put. We had no electricity but we were high enough to be safe. The water subsided in the morning and our £17m clean-up began. We were massively encouraged by the Prince of Wales who came to see the damage first hand.
“Forgemasters has invested massively in flood prevention to ensure this cannot happen again. This includes flood barriers to buildings, non-return valves on drains and work with the Environment Agency to remove debris from the River Don. A new initiative to flood protect the whole Lower Don Valley is now planned.”
Councillor Bryan Lodge was Sheffield City Council’s cabinet member for transport in 2007. He spent the day in the authority’s emergency control centre
“That whole day was like being in a feature film. It was surreal.
“I remember it raining heavily and there’d been floods the previous week so I said I would ‘nip up’ to emergency planning. I ended up staying there for hours.
“I was sat in the centre of all of this activity, watching everything unfold. I remember us getting one of the cameras turned around so we could see Forgemasters and we just saw waves of water running out of the gates. I could not believe my eyes. As the situation developed I did a radio interview warning residents if they were safe and warm to stay where they were. It was 2:40pm and I hadn’t heard it so we called the station and they told us it was for the 4pm news. Well, that was too late. By then the city was under water.
“The next day the topic on everyone’s lips was whether or not the dam at Ulley Reservoir was going to break. Teams working together to evacuate residents and pump water out of the dam. The situation was controlled but there was the real fear that something was going to happen. Fortunately, it didn’t.”
John Hamshere, 53, is the chief executive of Kelham Island Museum. It was devastated by the floods, only fully reopening two years later.
“The ironic thing is, on the day it happened I was doing a risk assessment for the museum. Flood damage never even crossed my mind.
“The whole experience was unbelievable. The water destroyed all the ground floor areas sweeping away 13 years of work and doing thousands of pounds of damage. It was not just water and silt that came in but also all the oil that was lifted out of the museum’s machines. It was running down the walls and display cases when we walked in the day after. It was utterly devastating.
“Everything had to be ripped as it was all contaminated. So a massive clean-up was started with the museum being stripped back to bare concrete. The only way to survive such an event is to get on with the recovery and this is what we did. We had to ensure we could be open for schools within two months and we achieved this using the upper floors.”