Death in the Co-op Bank

by DannyUK

Last week was a strange one. I never thought I’d see someone drop dead in front of me. I think it’s safe to say that witnessing a death in the Co-op Bank signalled the beginning of the end of my love for the company.

With a lot on my mind and gearing towards a stressful end of the week I was sat in work on Thursday counting down the hours to lunch. The branch had been fairly quiet and though it’s not completely uncommon for the queue size to ebb and flow a little it was noticeable that at just gone midday there was just the one person being served at the counter.

Despite the thick bullet-proof glass that the counter holds - a throwback to a largely bygone era of armed back raids - I could still make out what the cashier was saying to the heavy set guy that was trying to withdraw several thousand pounds.

The cashier was explaining, apologetically, that the limit for withdrawals was £2,000 without prior notice. The customer, though annoyed, accepted this, complaining as he did that he was told when he opened the account that he would be able to get his money out when he wanted.

After stuffing the money in his pocket the customer walked towards the door to exit the bank.

The route from cashier to exit door is a few steps, but it took him right past the manager of the branch who happened to be standing nearby. Unfortunately for me the resulting conversation was out of earshot, which meant that I had no excuse but to quit daydreaming and get back on with my own work.

I turned to the computer again. The day had been slow and wasn’t showing signs of picking up, though I’d made work for myself by being proactive. Right now I was bored of phoning people and just wanted something that would take me through to lunch which was an hour or so away.

Something caught me eye suddenly and I looked up to see my manager approaching with the same customer as before a short way behind him.

“This customer would like to raise a complaint, Dan,” my manager began, his voice at a tone that wouldn’t sound out of place narrating a bed time story on CBeebies. “if you could go through it with him please and log the complaint, he also wants to close his account down.”

Raising a complaint is a fairly easy process. It involves completing an online form on behalf of the customer, apologising for whatever it is that the customer is unhappy about (lest I ever forget, a complaint is “an expression of dissatisfaction whether justified or not” and is always looked at as positively as possible), and then carrying out the closing of the account - something which could only be done after a couple of days due to having been used that day.

Not that I was in a rush to point that out straight away. Experience tells me that listening, agreeing where possible and then explaining how to (or the reason we cannot) reach the customers preferred conclusion works much better that starting our out by saying what we can’t do.

The banking hall at the branch is long and narrow, and although my manager had arrived at my door a few seconds before the customer, it hadn’t really registered consciously at the time.

As he sat down, the customer took a few heavy breaths which, given the cold weather outside I put down to some kind of cough or cold on his part.

“I don’t feel too good…” The customer began, though aside from the laboured breathing, show few signs of ill effect. “… Just give me a moment or two…”

I offered him a glass of water, which he waved away, and rather than sit there looking at him I began bringing up his details on the system.

“I just need to verify who you are, so if you could please confirm the first and second digits of your pass code for me?”

I looked up as I finished the sentence but he was still struggling to compose himself fully, and I suspected was trying to hold back a coughing fit.

“There’s no rush,” I added, “in your own time.”

I scanned the banking hall behind him for a second or two, all too aware of how uncomfortable it is when you’re trying hard not to cough or sneeze and someone is looking directly at you. The bank was still empty. The cashiers were busying themselves with little jobs that normally get done only when the bank isn’t busy.

My manager had again disappeared from view and was, I suspected, at the other end of the branch talking to my colleague who was sat by the entrance.

I glanced back at the customer, sympathetic smile already in place, ready to again offer a glass of water. His eyes met mine and then suddenly rolled back in his head. Startled, I went to ask if he was OK, but before I could say anything he slumped to his right, stopping only when his shoulder met the wall that he was next to.

I leapt from my chair and raced to the front of the branch.

“Get an ambulance!” I shouted at my colleague, “my customer’s just collapsed and we need an ambulance now!”

There have been times before when I’ve seen ambulances called, and I’ve always wondered what it is that defines whether an ambulance should be called or not. Whether there was sometimes not enough justification to dial 999 due to the patient not being in an emergency situation.

I’ve always been told by ambulance workers that generally they’d rather be called out and check someone is OK than not, particularly where there are breathing or heart problems.

In this scenario, there wasn’t a second of hesitation. Whether it was the laboured breathing, the eye rolling or the sudden slump, there was never a moment when I questioned whether we needed the emergency services there.

I sat back in my office, opposite the customer who was slowly drooping, his head lowering in stages until it was rested on the table. My boss had followed me back and told me to stay with the customer while my colleague called the ambulance (did he think that I was going to go somewhere else, perhaps?), and as I sat there feeling useless I remember thinking what an odd situation it was.

A shout came through the branch that they were putting the operator through to me. I picked up the phone and answered the questions that were posed. What had happened? Was he still breathing? Where was he now?

I answered with as much detail as I could, never knowing if it was too much detail or not enough.

“He’s in a bad way. We need to get him laid out on the floor. Can you manoeuvre him into the floor for me?”

“No.” My reply was instinctive. The room we were in was tiny, taken up with an L-shaped desk arrangement, my chair and two heavy and fairly immobile customer chairs. The custody was slumped in the chair by the wall, in the corner, leaving next to no room to physically manhandle him up and out. I explained to the operator that he was a heavy set guy and that I wouldn’t be able to move him.

“Have you got someone there that could help you? He is in a bad way, we need to move him if at all possible.” She reiterated.

I parroted the words back to my manager who replied back more or less the same thing.

“I’m sorry. We can’t move him.”

“Can you tip his head back?”

I scanned the area again. The chair had been turned at a slight angle to the table but hadn’t been tucked in and was practically touching the large fixed glass partition that was the front wall of the small office. I said that we wouldn’t be able to push him back as there simply wasn’t room for his head to be laid back.

His breathing by now had become shallow and the operator again asked if we could move him at all.

My manager shrugged in an “I feel helpless” kind of way and then thankfully a paramedic from the shopping centre that the branch sits in raced through the door.

No sooner had he arrived than the paramedic from the ambulance service turned up. The operator ended the call and the official paramedic told everyone to get out of the way, an instruction that I didn’t need to hear twice.

The decision was made to shut the branch as the two paramedics bundled the customer onto the floor and immediately began CPR on him. A defibrillator was requested, though I’ve no recollection if one was found or used.

I was asked to stand outside the branch (or possible told to? Everything sends hazy around this point) to explain to customers that we were shut due to an emergency and that we weren’t sure when we would be open again.

I had to explain this several times to several people despite having a paramedic car (and by that stage an ambulance with flashing lights) parked directly outside the entrance.

The customer had been positioned just outside my office where they worked on him. Unfortunately this was by a large set of windows that overlook the local market meaning anyone passing the side of the branch could see exactly what was happening.

After about thirty minutes or so, in which time the CPR hadn’t seemed to stop for any length of time, the shutters went up and the customer was carted out on a stretcher. Given how long they had been trying to revive him, I feared the worst but was relieved to see that they hadn’t covered him over before taking him outside and must have stabilised him before transferring him to hospital.

I went inside, took my coat off and swapped conversations with colleagues before heading back downstairs to get on with my day. I was surprised to see the ambulance still there, still with lights flashing and quickly realised that they would have left long ago had they needed to rush him to hospital.

Death in the Co-op Bank Chelmsford - image taken by Mike Hedgethorne

The Co-op Bank in Chelmsford.

Word came within the hour that he had passed away. I assume it was in the bank, but never asked and was never told. I can’t imagine that anyone would want to particularly spread the word of a death in the Co-op Bank.

The branch reopened more or less straight away. Nobody was saying much and I decided to get back on with work. I brought a customer through to my office. As I sat down I noticed that the chair previously used was wet, and motioned for my new customer to sit down in the unaffected chair as I carried out whatever quick and menial task was required.

I then logged off, closed the office door and told my manager that the office floor and chair needed cleaning and told him that I was going to lunch.

“The police are on their way, they need to take a statement from you.”

I took it that he wanted me to stay and wait for them.

“There’s nothing I can tell them that won’t be on all of the CCTV footage. Besides, they could be hours.” I pointed out.

“They’re on their way.” He reiterated.

“Fine. If they want a statement they can wait an hour. If they don’t want to wait then they can come and get me. I’ll be in Starbucks.”

I didn’t believe for a second they’d be there anytime soon, though as it turns out they got there not long after that conversation.

Mary, my assistant manager, chimed in “we’ll see you in an hour Dan”, giving an understanding nod as she did so, much to my eternal relief.

An hour later I returned and almost immediately had to give a statement to a very friendly policeman who took care to continually tell me not to be worried and that it was all routine (to which I continually countered that I wasn’t at all worried and that I understood).

After that, I went back to work, slightly shaken and left confused by the fact that although the customer had pretty much died in front of two or three members of staff, it wasn’t deemed a big enough event to either close the branch early or send some staff home.

I’ve had better days, it had to be said.

The bank sent flowers and condolences to the customer’s widow. For the staff that witnessed the event a poster was put up with a telephone number to call if we wanted counselling or to discuss anything.

I guess that public PR is more important than staff PR in some eyes.

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