Published: 06:00, 04 May 2021
| Updated: 13:10, 04 May 2021
The first police officer on the scene of a tragedy which saw a 90ft hole suddenly appear and swallow a 35-year-old woman, has spoken publicly for the first time of the ordeal.
And he revealed how he had to wrestle with a colleague to prevent him from attempting a "suicidal" rescue mission in the immediate aftermath.
KentOnline recently recalled the terrible tale of Jean Thompson in November 1967.
She had been walking just behind her three-year-old son as they went to visit his grandmother in Frindsbury, near Strood, close to where they lived.
But as he neared her house he heard an ominous rumbling sound. As he looked round, a hole had opened up on the flagstone alleyway and his mother disappeared from view.
She had fallen into a deep chasm - thought to potentially be an old chalk mine or dene hole.
Her body was never recovered.
Then a 22-year-old police officer, who had served just three years on the force at the time, Mike Trotter was the first on the scene when the alarm was raised.
"My colleague and I were based at Rochester nick," the now retired 76-year-old explained.
"We were in the emergency response car when the call came in.
"At first the report was that a wall had fallen on a child. So obviously it was ‘blues and twos’ all the way up to Frindsbury. It was only when we got there we were told exactly what had happened."
A postman had been the first to respond to the desperate screams of Mrs Thompson's son. It was he who had called the police.
Mr Trotter, who would serve Kent Police for 30 years, added: "It was pretty traumatic to say the least. It was bad enough expecting to find a child under a wall, then to find that the child was OK but the mother had fallen through the flagstone footpath.
"There was chaos in the area. Residents were coming out and panicking when they realised this poor lady had just disappeared.
"But we had a job to do. The first thing we did was to crawl up to the hole. Someone had said to be careful in case the whole lot goes. We lay down and looked down. There was still a lot of dust coming up from the hole and we couldn't see anything.
"My colleague then tried to get down the hole. When we got there he just said 'right, I'm going in'. I had to say 'no you're not'. I literally had to grab hold of him and pull him back by the shoulders and the scruff of the neck.
"I said to him it was very brave to think of doing so, but it was too dangerous for him to contemplate. It would have been suicidal.”
Although there was a report at the time which suggested Mrs Thompson's body had been briefly spotted at the bottom of the hole, which had caved in leaving a mass of rubble and crumbling walls, Mr Trotter admits he and his colleague neither saw or heard her.
"It was clear a fatality was the likely outcome given the depth of the hole...."
"You always hoped that someone might say they could hear someone calling," he reflects, "but it wasn't to be and there was no chance of that really.
"It was clear a fatality was the likely outcome given the depth of the hole - anyone who had fallen down there would have been seriously or fatally injured."
An ex-City of Rochester workman, who did not want to be named, but arrived on the scene shortly after the tragedy said it looked like "something out of a horror film" as he peered into the deep hole which had appeared. As fire crews arrived, the police team stepped aside to allow them to start making a rescue effort.
But it was not without danger as the fragility of the hole led to those attempting to be lowered down to be injured.
Mr Trotter recalls: "They were only wearing their helmets and protective jackets. Given the amount of masonry which must have fallen they were lucky not to have been more hurt.
"The interior of the hole was falling away all the time. The concern was if that had fallen in, what else would?
"A couple of the fire crew's colleagues were injured. Then the Army was brought in to reinforce the hole to make it safer to go in. But even then the overhangs started to collapse, plus the fumes, it made it difficult even for the Army."
An old cess pit had collapsed when the hole emerged, with the fumes hampering rescue efforts.
Fire crews, recalls Mr Trotter, were aware of the mines which lay beneath the ground and, as a consequence, came up with an idea to see if there was perhaps an underground water channel where the unfortunate Mrs Thompson could have travelled.
"The fire service thought there must be an outlet somewhere and, in the effort to find that, coloured dye was tipped down the hole and the flow of the water monitored. The hope was if there was a large exit her body may have been washed out so she could be recovered.
"But, unfortunately, it came out in a multitude of small places and there was absolutely no chance of her body emerging."
It was only a little over 24-hours later that the search for her body was called off.
But the police's job was not over yet.
While discussions took place as to what to do with the huge hole, an around-the-clock presence was required to prevent further tragedy.
"I remember myself and various other colleagues, for two to three weeks, having to stand guard over the hole," Mr Trotter explains.
"As it was during the winter we had a brazier which kept us warm. The neighbours were very good and treated us to cups of tea. But it had a big impact on the community at the time."
The hole was eventually filled in with gravel.
The aftermath saw police compile a report into the death for the coroner - but Mr Trotter recalls getting the information they required wasn't always easy.
He remembers: "I think the local authority at the time were watching what they said to us, given the local area, and we had to push hard a couple of times with people to get what we wanted sufficient for a coroner's report to answer his inevitable questions about the cause of it.
"The local authority were probably thinking of their own responsibilities and culpabilities if they said too much and we had to rattle a couple of cages to get an answer."
Mr Trotter, who was born in Rochester, went on to serve as a detective in CID before being promoted to Inspector, went on to work for many years in Canterbury and retired while serving at Sittingbourne.
He concludes: "As a young man I was a steady guy and tried not to let anything shake me, but when you've only just started that sort of incident does stick with you."