The fact that only two people died when a two-tonne helicopter crashed on to a busy London road during the morning rush hour was nothing short of "miraculous", police said last night.
Emergency workers who scrambled to the scene had expected the death toll to be "much, much worse", but instead they came across a series of astonishingly narrow escapes, including a baby who was inches from death when a piece of wreckage smashed through his parents' car roof on to the seat next to him.
The driver of a crane was two minutes late for his shift when the Agusta 109 helicopter crashed into it. Otherwise, he would have been in his cabin at the time of the impact.
Fate contrived an extraordinary set of circumstances to limit the death toll to the helicopter pilot and a pedestrian, including a red traffic light that kept the crash site almost entirely clear of vehicles.
"I'm absolutely astonished there were not more casualties, to be honest," said one senior fire officer who was among the first on the scene. Commander Neil Basu, of the Metropolitan Police, added: "It was something of a miracle that this was not many, many times worse."
The pilot was Pete Barnes (50), a married father of two, who had won an award for bravery while flying an air ambulance.
The victim on the ground was Matthew Wood (39), an administrator for Rentokil, who was on his way to work at its offices nearby when he was hit by debris.
One of his colleagues said: "He was a hugely popular employee and he was really warm and generous."
Mr Barnes had set off from Redhill Aerodrome, just south of the M25, at 7.35am for Elstree aerodrome in Hertfordshire, where he was to pick up passengers.
After flying under a blanket of low cloud for 20 minutes, he was unable to land at Elstree because of fog, and asked national air traffic controllers at Swanwick in Hampshire if he could divert to Battersea heliport, next to the Thames.
What happened next is the subject of a Civil Aviation Authority investigation, but Battersea heliport did not establish contact with Mr Barnes after he was handed over to them by Swanwick. Just before 8am, his aircraft hit the jib of the giant crane on the St George's Tower development, which was partly obscured by fog.
A construction worker who saw the impact said the helicopter appeared to be in trouble.
"It was moving in the air, sort of like it was spinning out of control," he said. "Then it just smashed right into the crane. Part of the crane came off and I just ran because I didn't know where it was going to land."
Remarkably, only 13 people were injured, with a broken leg and minor burns the worst of the injuries. Only six required hospital treatment. (© Daily Telegraph, London)