As part of a new ITV1 documentary called ‘Saved’, the council’s chief executive Alistair Neill, will be interviewed about a major incident five years ago.
In April 2011, Alistair found himself involved in a major incident that quickly became a lead news story across the country and indeed Europe and America. The extraordinary events will be reconstructed by ITV as part of its ‘Saved’ documentary; so we caught up with Alistair to find out more about what happened on the day and the making of the documentary.
Council communications (CC): This is a truly amazing story Alistair, can you tell us about what happened and why ITV decided to reconstruct the events?
Alistair (AN): Well, looking back now, the events are still fresh in my mind. In 2011, I was chief executive of Southampton City Council and received an invitation to visit and inspect the newly commissioned submarine HMS Astute and its crew, whilst it was docked in Southampton.
CC: HMS Astute is a nuclear submarine isn’t it?
AN: Yes, not just any nuclear submarine either, it’s a £1billion state of the art astute-class attack submarine, which at that time was less than a year old. It has a nuclear reactor onboard, carries Tomahawk nuclear missiles and carries out missions all over the world. The navy doesn’t advertise the presence of its nuclear weapons, so when it was due to dock in Southampton, it was top secret at a hidden location.
When I arrived, I parked alongside the Astute; it’s not often you parallel park with a nuclear warship! I met the submarine’s commander on the Astute’s forward platform, along with two of his lieutenant commanders, three senior crew and five other invitees, including the leader of the council Councillor Smith, the mayor and other prominent local leaders. Commander Breckenridge asked us to follow him down the conning tower, so we climbed down and found ourselves in the main control deck.
CC: What was that like?
AN: Very narrow, very compact with lots of cables! There were also state-of-the-art screens, panels, instruments and satellite equipment all around; the nuclear reactor and missiles are all controlled from here. I stood next to the conning tower stairwell talking to lieutenant commanders Ian Molyneux and Chris Hodge, exchanging different experiences. They told me about their missions, which can regularly be 90 days under water, all over the world. The three of us were apart from the rest of the group and we talked together for about half an hour. A small group of visiting sixth form students were led past us and straight up the conning tower, then minutes later, incredibly we heard gunshots from the narrow corridor behind us. It seemed incredible, but they were unmistakably gunshots.
Lieutenant Molyneux was shot almost immediately and fell right beside me, mortally injured and suddenly a gunman in standard crew uniform appeared about four foot from me, pointing a semi-automatic machine gun at my chest.
CC: That’s almost impossible to comprehend, what on earth did you do?
AN: I tensed, ready to be shot. At the last second, he shifted and shot lieutenant commander Hodge instead, who was only a foot away from me. Chris stared at me and fell back. The gunman had a magazine with 30 cartridges, he was blocking any exit, so had all 12 of us trapped with no way out and he’d shot two people already......it was clear that he intended to shoot us all.
This had to be a terrorist attack which we happened to be right in the middle of and after shooting us, the gunman and his accomplices must be after the nuclear reactor and missiles. So we had no real option......Councillor Smith and I attacked him. He fired as I went in and that three inch bullet missed my head by a whisker. I found it later by my feet, where it landed after ricocheting around the billion pound control room! I hit him hard while Councillor Smith wrenched the machine gun out of his hands.
CC: Do you have any combat training?
AN: Well, I was brought up near Glasgow! This was a bit different though. I found myself alone fighting with this chap for a while during which he broke a couple of my ribs and cut me a bit, but I overpowered him. Then with my knee on his head, I searched him for a knife, guns and detonators, all while trying to keep his hands away from the machine gun. He wore a two inch thick jacket, which I thought had to be filled with explosives. I searched for wires and yelled for someone to sit on his legs, then very carefully removed his jacket, thinking an accomplice could detonate it at any second. He didn’t co-operate, so it was a bit tricky.
This all took about 15 minutes, but it seemed an eternity, as I thought he must be after the reactor and working with accomplices onboard or on the dockside. At any moment I expected the submarine to explode or other gunmen to appear. When the first policeman came down the conning steps, I put the gunman in handcuffs and led him up the conning tower......I wouldn’t let him go! The view up there from the top of the conning tower was crazy, helicopters were swarming in and on the dockside police, fire and ambulances were pouring in. The commander and I stood there, taking it all in, shaking our heads at what had happened. It seemed pretty incredible. He thanked me profusely and shook my hand.
CC: It sounds like a scene from a Hollywood film!
AN: It certainly wasn’t a typical day at the office! I realised this story would go viral quickly, so I texted my wife Kate to say that a gunman had shot two people I was with, but that I’d stopped him. It was just as well as national radio stations were already feeding the breaking news story and a colleague had run in to tell her that people had been shot.
CC: You didn’t talk about it afterwards, why not?
AN: It was very simple really. The chief constable and naval chiefs asked me to keep my testimony quiet until the trial. One man had died and the other was fighting for his life, so I only talked with family and close colleagues about it. There was a huge media circus for a few days, but I dodged it, so very few people knew I’d been involved. At the trial six months later, my testimony was read out directly by the judge, before sentencing the gunman to life. Then there was a lot of renewed media interest in what I’d done.
CC: What did the navy do?
AN: They were great. Two days after the attack, an admiral asked me to come back to the same dock to personally bid farewell to a shattered commander and crew. Two rear admirals greeted me and thanked me; it was very solemn, very quiet and dignified then the Astute sailed out on the evening tide, back to Faslane for repairs, with commander Breckenridge waving from the conning tower. Then the Astute disappeared below the waves.
The navy sent people to support me with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as they categorised what had happened at the highest level of ‘combat shock’......machine gun attack, people shot right beside me, hand to hand combat, imminent explosion; that sort of thing. I told them I was a big chap, that I could handle it......they told me I’d probably see images, shake and cry unexpectedly for a long time. I was quickly okay for the most part; but I did cry unexpectedly a few times. What a wuss!
CC: You received three national bravery awards for what you did?
AN: Yes, I felt really honoured. Councillor Smith and I were presented with national police bravery awards, then we received Pride of Britain Awards on TV. To top it all, we were awarded George Medals, presented at Buckingham Palace by The Queen. It was a great opportunity to wear my kilt......which she approved of, although there were no comments about the legs!
CC: So when did you hear from ITV?
AN: About 18 months ago, a production team came to Hereford and said they were keen to make a programme about the events and wanted to check the details. It took another nine months before they were in a position to start filming. They interviewed me in their London production studios, basically a darkened room with cameras, camera lights......and lots of questions! They filmed a reconstruction which I’ll be seeing for the first time on 26 January!
CC: Did this whole experience change you?
AN: That’s a good question. It reminded me that life is really precious, you can turn a corner and it changes, so you should value it every day......don’t forget what is important in life. Oh, and if you’re ever invited onboard a nuclear submarine, to simply say “no thanks“!
‘Saved’ will be screened on ITV1 at 9pm on Tuesday 26 January.