Wednesday, 24 September 2014 00:00

Flood survivor recalls rescue

Written by  Leanne Winston
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Flood survivor recalls rescue

On Saturday 4 October the United States Air Force’s 67 Special Operations Squadron (S0S) will be granted Freedom of Hunstanton in recognition of the lives they helped to save during the tidal flood of 1953. 

Led by the Norwich Pipe Band, the squadron will parade through the town, starting at Sandringham Road at 11.45 am, proceeding through Westgate and arriving at the Spinney, where, at 12 noon, Hunstanton Town Mayor, Cllr Carol Bower, will present the Freedom Scroll to Lt Col John Peak, Commander of the current day 67th SOS, which is now assigned to the 352nd Special Operations Group at RAF Mildenhall. 

The parade will then proceed through High Street on to Greevegate, The Green and Cliff Parade, where they will form up - the sea cutting a dramatic backdrop and casting a poignant reminder of the foundations of the special relationship that has grown between the town and the 67th SOS over the past 61 years.

Among those who will gather to show their support on 4 October will be flood survivor Neil Quincey, who will be accompanied by his daughter, Jane and son, William, who also experienced the surge first hand. His account of the night the tidal surge hit the east coast on 31 January 1953 captures both the courage of those who lived through it and the terrible loss of who did not.

31 Hunstanton residents, including 16 Americans lost their lives during the flood, with further loss of life in Heacham, Snettisham and King's Lynn. At the time Mr Quincey lived on South Beach Road, one of the areas locally to be worst hit. His was the only complete family from that neighbourhood to survive.

Looking at photographs showing Beach Road following the flood, the devastation caused by what Mr Quincey refers to as a ‘solid wall of water’, is apparent. Pointing to the photograph, he indicates the balcony on the second storey of his house and explains that the flood water rose to it, bursting the door into the property, leaving his wife, Betty, and children, including their 9-month-old son, knee-deep in water with no means of escape. The neighbouring property was almost completely destroyed.

Looking at another photograph, Mr Quincey explains: “This was the first bungalow on the road; it went through the front and took the whole back wall out.”

A taxi driver by trade, Mr Quincey had been away from Hunstanton for much of the day on 31 January and was shocked to find that the road to his home, and family, was completely cut off by water when he returned that evening. The US Air Force 67th Air Rescue Squadron (now known as the 67th Special Operations Squadron), who were at the time stationed at RAF Sculthorpe, were already preparing to launch an amphibious vehicle when Mr Quincey arrived at the top of South Beach Road. After persuading the driver to allow him to join the 4-strong American rescue crew, Mr Quincey, a local police sergeant and a St John's Ambulance volunteer climbed aboard.

Mr Quincey recalls, “It was pitch dark, gale blowing, the spray from the waves was like a handful of shingle in your face and the noise... it was difficult to hear each other at all.” Using what remained of familiar landmarks, Mr Quincey helped to direct the crew to his house, the storm still raging and threatening to seize the boat.

As the driver turned the boat in line with the wave direction to moor it by the balcony of the Quinceys' home, it was capsized, throwing all six occupants out. All managed to cling to the balcony, but the boat was lost, leaving the six men, Mrs Quincey and the children stranded for the night.

In the pitch black they stood all night, aware that the next high tide, expected at around 7am, could bring yet more water. At around 4.30 am help arrived in the form of Reis Leming of the 67th S0S. By this time the water level had dropped to around 5ft allowing Mr Leming, who could not swim, to wade through the icy water in his anti-exposure suit, towing a rubber life raft. The Qunicey family, including their pet wired haired terrier, were pushed to safety by Mr Leming and his fellow airmen. In the following hours and days the magnitude of the storm and its impact upon the community became clear.

Mr Quincey recalls the heart-rending moment when he accompanied a neighbour who was trying to return home in the morning, only to find that the man's house had been destroyed. The bodies of his wife and child were later recovered. He also recalls how his wife was haunted by her decision to cancel a birthday party that was due to be held for her daughter at the Quinceys’ home on the 31 January. He said: “The weather was so rough that day and a lot of the children had colds so my wife decided to postpone it. A lot of those who drowned would have been there if we’d gone ahead with the party. They would have been marooned all night with us, but they would have survived. My wife never, never forgot that.”

Reflecting upon the aftermath, he said: “The trauma is something that never goes away. Immediately after the storm everything around here was in such turmoil. People were in shock. Neighbours had gone. People didn’t talk about it. For months, they avoided each other.”

Mr Quincey’s family, were among the 27 people who 22 year-old Reis Leming saved. Mr Leming became the first non-Briton to be awarded the George Medal for bravery in peacetime. Mr Leming’s family will be granted Freedom of Hunstanton on 4 October in a private ceremony, as a tribute to Mr Leming, who died in 2012. 

Hunstanton Mayor, Cllr Carol Bower, said: “So many lives have been shaped by the devastation of the 1953 flood and it has left an indelible mark on our community. On Saturday 4 October we will remember those who did not survive, honour the bravery of the 67th Air Rescue Squadron and celebrate the lasting friendship between the modern squadron and the town. I hope lots of people will join us to mark this special day.”

The event is being organised by Hunstanton Town Council with the assistance of the Borough Council of King’s Lynn & West Norfolk. 

Last modified on Sunday, 13 January 2019 14:33

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