Experience: a helicopter crashed into the pub I was drinking in

It was like a war zone. There were bodies everywhere and people wandering around in shock

I’ve had traumatic experiences throughout my life. I was abused as a child, and my father was beaten to death in his flat over a rented television in 1996. In my 30s, I lost twins when a partner miscarried. I never opened up to anyone about any of it.

So when the night of the disaster came, I had already bottled up so much. It was a Friday in November 2013. My wife was in Aberdeen for the weekend. I was out with my mate at the Clutha Vaults in Glasgow, watching a ska band called Esperanza. The pub was packed. Then at 10.25pm, there was a bang.

All of a sudden, everything to my left no longer existed. There was complete devastation. I was millimetres from the damage, but untouched. Seeing dust and debris float around me, I felt as if I was inside a snow globe. My first thought was that a car had lost control and hit the pub, or that the roof had collapsed. I helped as many people as I could.

It was like a war zone. There were bodies everywhere and people wandering around in shock. Outside, I asked an emergency worker what had happened and when he told me, I said, “Don’t be silly, mate. Things like that don’t happen.” Then I saw the rotor blades of the police helicopter sticking out of the building. There had been a problem with the fuel system and it had crashed through the roof while the band were mid-song.

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All the survivors gathered in the hotel across the road. I didn’t phone my wife because I thought, “She’s in Aberdeen, she’ll never find out about this.” It sounds strange but, afterwards, my mate and I went to another bar for a drink. I didn’t want to go home to an empty flat. The next morning, I woke up with many missed calls from my wife. I told her: “Don’t come home, I’m all right, I don’t want to ruin your weekend.” On the Monday I went straight back to work: professionally and personally, that was one of the biggest mistakes of my life.

There was wall-to-wall coverage of the crash on TV and in the newspapers. I really struggled with the media. Ten people died, but somehow I’d escaped without a scratch. I decided I was never going to talk about it again, batten down the hatches. At the time, I was a director for a housing organisation in Glasgow. Every time someone asked if I was OK, I felt as if I was going to burst into tears. But I didn’t want anyone to see me cry, so I’d shut my office door and try to get through each day.

Almost a year to the day after the crash, I had emergency surgery because doctors discovered a tumour in my throat. My life was like an EastEnders storyline. Then in 2016, my son was born. It was a beautiful moment, but difficult. Because of my own childhood, I thought I wouldn’t be a good father, so I started to distance myself from my wife and son.

Then in 2017, I was in a car crash. That was the catalyst for me having to confront everything I’d been through. The bang of the crash took me back to the bang of the helicopter, and that triggered the horrific sights I saw in the Clutha, which then triggered memories of my father’s death. I was being triggered constantly. Every time I saw a helicopter, I dived for cover.

Eventually, I asked for help. I got a referral to Glasgow’s psychological trauma centre and was diagnosed with complex PTSD – a disorder that can be caused by repeatedly experiencing traumatic events. Finally, I could take ownership of what I was feeling.

The therapy I had was brilliant. It taught me that, if anyone had been through the things I had, they would be feeling the way I was. That was groundbreaking. I’m still with my wife and she has really helped me through it. She and my son are the most important things to me. My tumour was successfully removed and I’m in better health now.

I’m not like Mary Poppins; I don’t skip down the street. But I’m happier than I’ve ever been. I now run an organisation that aims to change the culture around mental health in the workplace. I won’t let what happened dictate my life – I’m fine going to gigs and I can watch disaster movies.

When I turned 50 a couple of years ago, I thought, I’m so happy I’ve reached 50 and I’m going to live the next few decades as fully as I can. It might seem like terrible luck that all of these things happened to me, but perhaps the fact that I came through it all makes me the luckiest guy in the world.

As told to Ellie Purcell

Do you have an experience to share? Email experience@theguardian.com

Michael Byrne

The GuardianTramp

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