Hero who lost a hand – but lived
Bruised and battered, explosive ordnance disposal technician Fred Pavey tells Herman Grech it is a miracle he only lost a hand.
Fred Pavey is an expert at defusing bombs. He is also an expert in downplaying real-life drama, especially his own.
The 55-year-old Briton, surprisingly, smiles when asked to describe his immediate reaction when the Type 84 Chinese anti-tank mine he was trying to neutralise in Misurata, Libya last November blew up, critically wounding him.
“I know it sounds daft but the first thing I did was what every man would do – I checked myself to make sure the ‘family jewels’ were still in place.
“Then I put what was left of my right arm in the air, and grabbed it with my left hand to stop the blood (flowing). Thirdly, I called out to my colleague Andy to make sure he was OK, as he was doing the same to me. Probably the fourth thing that went through my mind is my wife’s going to kill me.”
Five operations later, and still sporting the scars of that fateful afternoon, Mr Pavey jokes about the shape of the cotton sock enveloping his severed right arm as he slides into the armchair of his room at Sliema’s Preluna Hotel.
“The thing is I shouldn’t be here. I should have come home in a box or I should be learning Braille... or hopping. It’s just a miracle that nothing – apart from my hand – is such a big deal,” he tells The Sunday Times.
During a mission to the then besieged Libyan city, doing what is probably the world’s most dangerous job (employed with Danish NGO Church Aid), Mr Pavey lost his right hand and sustained shrapnel wounds to his abdomen, face and leg.
He opens a scrapbook with his left hand and leafs through the gruesome photos of bloodied flesh, chopped fingers and shrapnel deeply embedded into the bone.
“It’s a bit odd looking. They took a vein out of here and then some flesh and shoved it here. I’ve got another skin graft here,” he says, as though explaining his new home design project.
It was a normal working day at Misurata on November 2. The fighting had ceased by then but all sorts of explosives were still scattered around the fields, which the local farmers were desperate to start ploughing.
“That’s a really big problem for us. Accidents are happening all the time with local people, children especially.”
Armed with his good-luck rubber chicken charm given to him by his Maltese wife, Mr Pavey set out for another day at the ‘office’ with Andy, his colleague, to defuse the ill-fated explosive charger. This time, however, the rubber chicken lost all its super powers.
“We knew there were some problems with the device. We hit it with an explosives charge and it seemed to us, based on the information we had then, that it would be safe to move it. That’s when the accident happened.”
Kneeling, Mr Pavey picked up the device with his right hand. He was suddenly hurled backwards with the blast and knew something quite serious had happened.
“I couldn’t see. It hurt but it wasn’t agony. The wound in my leg felt I had just been dead-legged in a rugby match. I knew the hand was damaged but I couldn’t see it because my eyes were full of blood. I thought I had gone blind. I knew I’d done something serious to my hand but the drills and skills we had taught ourselves and our guys kicked in. I was being checked for wounds within a minute,” he recalls.
“There was no time to think ‘oh, I really hurt myself’. It was like ‘let’s get this done and do it properly’. I know it sounds a bit gung-ho, but if you’ve got the training it kicks in.
“This is when things started to go right because our guys immediately sprang into action. Andy was on his stomach covered in shrapnel to his legs and the back of his head. He was calling in the casualty evacuation and was on the phone to headquarters in Denmark. I was back at our own medic station on site within four minutes, being attended by an international medic within eight minutes and I was in hospital within 45 minutes.”
After receiving treatment from the Misurata hospital, he was put on an air ambulance to Tripoli, where he had four operations to remove shrapnel and to stabilise his hand.
Mr Pavey, who served as an engineer for the British forces in Malta in the 1970s, went on to receive the best treatment at a hospital near Gatwick airport, set up during the Second World War to treat pilots with burns.
Sporting a face still pockmarked with shrapnel, Mr Pavey laughs as he recalls the day he walked through Gatwick security prompting incessant beeps from the hand-held metal detector.
“I’ve got shrapnel all around my eyes, but none in my eyes, which is incredible because I wasn’t wearing any eye protection. I’ve probably been saved for something special in future,” he laughs.
Mr Pavey believes the explosion was triggered by an element in the device, which the EODs were not aware of. Lessons, he says, have since been learnt and new practices have been put in place, but such a job is never safe enough. Only last week, a young Estonian colleague was killed by a similar blast in Misurata. He was one of a team sent as replacement to Mr Pavey.
Mr Pavey is not some irrational adrenaline junkie without self-discipline and insists the number of explosive devices in Libya cannot be ignored.
“We did have some problems of supply of explosives and detonators (that day). So actually if we’d had more time, if we weren’t in such a dynamic environment we’d probably have slowed down. But in the months leading to that we cleared thousands of items which could have potentially killed somebody,” he says.
The two EODs have repeatedly gone over the incident and agree they would not have done it any differently based on the information they had at the time.
Despite the accident, which robbed him of his right hand, Mr Pavey refuses to throw in the towel and is still working part-time for the Danish NGO.
“I probably couldn’t get into the operations side hands-on, but I can do inspection visits and I plan to run a bomb disposal course in Denmark in July. I can teach ‘do as I say not as I do’. They’re keen to keep me going and I’m keen to get back into it. But maybe I won’t be full hands-on.”
He admits until he gets back on the ground and starts dealing with something as dangerous as the device that got him he will not know whether he will pluck up enough courage to return to the job.
“We take a pause and we carry on. It’s all about saving lives. At the end of the day it’s not about the salary. It’s such a worthwhile job. Everyone has that ethos. We know it’s dangerous. We know there are risks and we try to minimise them but we have to accept things like what happened to me.”
Four months on from the accident should he seriously consider settling down in Malta and take on a ‘safe’ job?
Mr Pavey giggles, points towards Tower Road, and exclaims: “Have you driven on these roads?”
“I still feel I’ve got something to offer and I think it would be a waste if I didn’t share my knowledge.”
Mr Pavey also plans to return to Misurata with Andy to thank those who helped get him out when injured.
“I don’t like the word closure, but it would be good for the boys there to see us, especially after we lost a guy last week.”