The first victim of last year’s Westminster terror attack acted heroically to save his wife, a court has heard as emotional tributes were paid on the first day of inquests into those killed.
Khalid Masood carried out a car and knife attack on Westminster Bridge and the Palace of Westminster on 22 March last year, killing five people and injuring dozens of others.
As the inquests started at the Old Bailey, relatives were invited to describe the lives of their loved ones and the impact of their loss.
The court also watched graphic CCTV footage of victims being mowed down and flung over the side of the bridge, as well as the knife attack on PC Keith Palmer, who was guarding the Houses of Parliament. Concerns were raised at the inquest by Palmer’s family about firearms officers not being stationed at New Palace Yard where the officer was stabbed.
Masood’s first victim, Kurt Cochran, 54, from Utah, was in London with his wife Melissa as part of a holiday celebrating 25 years of marriage. She was seriously injured in the attack but was saved by her “hero” husband, she said in a statement read on her behalf by her sister Angela Stoll because she was too distressed to address the inquest.
“He was my best friend, my husband and my everything,” said Melissa Cochran. “I was so lucky to have had 25 wonderful years with the man of my dreams. He made me laugh every single day. I cherish every single memory we made.
“I am forever grateful for the time we had together, allowing me to be the mother to his children and especially his heroic actions on that day, saving my life.
“I am saddened and sick of the hatred in this world. I wish everyone could have Kurt’s love and compassion for others.”
The court was then shown CCTV footage of Kurt Cochran attempting to push his wife out of the way on Westminster Bridge. Det Supt John Crossley, who led the police investigation, said: “He [Kurt Cochran] has clearly seen the vehicle and [is] pushing Melissa forward … he took the full impact of the vehicle”. As a result of his actions, his wife was hit by the side – rather than the front – of the vehicle.
The coroner, Mark Lucraft, said: “Apparently, [it was] an act of instinctive courage.”
Paying tribute to the second of Masood’s five victims, 75-year-old Leslie Rhodes, his niece Mandy Rhodes said he had been like a father to her and her siblings after her own father, his brother Brian, had died, aged 36. “He was always there for us, acted like a father to us,” she said in a statement. “He looked so much like my father and he was like him, too – placid, quiet, kind.”
Relatives of Aysha Frade, 44, the third victim, said she had expressed concerns about safety, fearing a terrorist attack, when her job was transferred to Westminster but they had reassured her that it was the safest place she could be.
Her husband, John Frade, said it caused him “excruciating pain” to think of her in the past tense. “She doesn’t only smile with her mouth but with her eyes … energising you to believe anything is possible,” he told the court. He said his wife’s love surrounded her family and “her spirit lives on in the eyes of her two children”.
The next of the five victims hit by Masood was Romanian tourist Andreea Cristea, who was thrown into the river Thames when she was hit by the car. She would have been 33 on the day the inquest opened.
A recording played in court by her family described her as “lovely, enchanting, life loving”. They said: “All we are left with is memories. We will never be able to kiss her again, we will never be able to hold her in our arms. We will never be able to hear her voice and that’s a pain we have to live with every day.”
At the end of the recording, a heartbreaking note written by Cristea on New Year’s Eve 2016 was read in which she said: “The year 2017 will be the best year of my life from every point of view.” She described her hopes for her interior design business and to start a family with her boyfriend, Andrei Burnaz, who was with her at the time of the attack.
Crossley said Cristea was found just under nine minutes after being thrown into the water and 100m from her point of entry by a tourist boat. She died two weeks later.
After crashing the car, Masood, weilding two large knives, attacked Palmer.
The police officer’s sister Angela Palmer told the inquest: “Our lives were changed for ever on that day and it’s impossible to describe how much we miss him. Keith died protecting strangers, doing his job, and will be remembered by many for his bravery.”
She said he was committed to his job but was also a doting father. The happiest day of his life was when his daughter was born, she said, describing her brother as “a very proficient nappy changer and totally involved in looking after her”.
Under questioning by a lawyer acting for Palmer’s family, Crossley said he had raised the issue with a senior colleague about the lack of proximity of firearms officers to New Palace Yard at the time of the attack. The inquest heard that the armed officers were on patrol and not at stationary positions.
Opening the inquest, Lucraft, the chief coroner of England and Wales, said: “The lives of many were torn apart by 82 seconds of high and terrible drama.”
The Westminster attack was one of four atrocities in the space of four months last year, which claimed 36 lives. The others were in Manchester, London Bridge and Finsbury Park.
A minute’s silence was held at the start of the inquest, which is expected to last up to four weeks. At its conclusion, an inquest into Masood’s death will begin with a jury.