“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.”