Shining a light on the Angel of Platform Six

One of the highlights for me in writing The Inkwell Chronicles: The Ink of Elspet was getting to weave historic people and events into a fictional world. Since it is set in Great Britain in the 1950s, there were many names and places that were new to me.

The real inspiration for many of the historic references came from C.S. Lewis and his much loved Chronicles of Narnia. The final book in the series, The Last Battle, begins with a railway accident. It occurred to me that Lewis might have had an actual train crash in mind as he wrote.

As I explored that idea, it did not take long to stumble upon a tragedy that occurred at London’s Harrow & Wealdstone station on October 8th, 1952.  To this day, it stands out as the UK’s single largest peacetime collision, involving three trains and hundreds of passengers. It was so massive in scale that any writer living in the UK at the time would have had it in mind.

The precise cause of the wreck remains a mystery. But the actions of the first responders gave me the first hero for my book: An American Air Force nurse by the name of Abbie Sweetwine.

A classic London fog had settled over the countryside that morning, making for extremely poor visibility. The engineer driving the train from Perth somehow missed three caution signals and barreled directly into the two commuter trains already in the station at rush hour.

The nearest medical facility was the Air Force Hospital in South Ruislip. They immediately sent an emergency response team that consisted of seven doctors and one nurse—Lieutenant Sweetwine.

As a Black female, Abbie Sweetwine had already faced the hurdles a woman of color had to overcome in the armed services during that  The policies in place when she volunteered for service prevented her from joining the Air Force. She had to join the U.S. Army before eventually being allowed to transfer to the military branch she preferred.

She was already a groundbreaker when she arrived on the scene at the Harrow & Wealdstone station, and she continued to prove her capacity to surmount the daunting challenges in front of her.

The medical team established a triage station where the wounded could be categorized and receive treatment prior to being transported to the hospital. Those who had suffered only minor injuries or were experiencing symptoms of shock were provided with comfort care. The more serious casualties were given  blood plasma or morphine as needed.

Nurse Sweetwine didn’t even have a pen available to identify patients. But thinking quickly, she made do with a tube of her own lipstick. She used it mark the forehead of treated patients with an “X”. Those who had already received morphine were identified with an “M.” The method she employed was communicated via the ambulance drivers to staff back at the hospital. This kept patients from receiving an overdose of morphine and likely saved their lives.

One publication dubbed Nurse Sweetwine, “The Angel of Platform Six“.The name stuck. Her rapid thinking and quick actions were honored in a ceremony the following year. To this day, modern triage and paramedic practices in mass casualty situations acknowledge the impact of the pioneering work of Nurse Sweetwine and the others on her time.

After the drama of that day, Abbie Sweetwine returned to her tireless work as a nurse and continued to serve her country for many more years. She rose to the rank of major by the time she retired. She was just shy of her 88th birthday when she passed away in 2009.

Having created a fictional “Nurse Abbie” for my book, it was a privilege for me to interview a living relative of the real hero.  Dr. Burgandi Thompson-Alexander spent a large portion of her childhood living with her great aunt. In reflecting on her life, she commented, “Each of you have a fingerprint that no one else has, so you can leave an imprint that no one else can. Abbie’s mark was unique and indelible because of who she was and not the influence of others.”

Meet the character inspired by nurse Abbie Sweetwine in The Inkwell Chronicles: The Ink of Elspet