Desert Rat, 97, cheats death in rock landfall

Police cordon off Shipton & Co
Police cordon off Shipton & Co

A 97-YEAR-OLD, who fought with General Montgomery’s Eighth Army, the Desert Rats in the Second World War, escaped death within inches after 30 tonnes of rock fell onto his shop on Saturday (February 1).

Vernon Watkins, who together with his son, also called Vernon, were working at their jewellery shop, Shipton & Co, in White Rock when the drama unfolded just before 12.30pm.

The war veteran, who fought in North Africa and Italy against the Nazis, became trapped in a workshop at the back of his maisonette at the premises after the rock came crashing down.

Mr Watkins escaped injury as he had become trapped in a workshop area at the back of the shop not affected by the rock fall.

The jeweller, who suffers from deafness, was stuck in his basement workshop for 45 minutes in the dark and had to use a whistle to attract the attention of firefighters.

His 60-year-old son Vernon told the Observer: “We are both so lucky to be alive and still pretty shell-shocked by it all. It was all quite surreal.

“I was in that office out the back just before the rocks fell. If I had left there three seconds later, most of them would have fallen on top of me.

“There was a great rumble and the whole place literally shook as the debris came down.

“The rocks smashed the back of the shop together with the maisonette my father lived in. He has run the business since 1958.

“We were both extremely lucky. I was more concerned about my father though. I shouted for his attention. He had a whistle with him and kept on blowing it in the pitch black until firefighters heard. The emergency services were superb.

“When firefighters found my father the situation was a bit precarious as they didn’t know whether any more of the cliff would collapse. They rescued him using a rope and a ladder. He had to climb 15 ft to get out.”

Mr Watkins and his father fear their business may suffer following Saturday’s ordeal.

He said: “We have no idea when we will be able to return. It’s a case of taking it one step at a time.”

He added he was seeing loss adjusters on Wednesday (February 5) to assess the extent of the damage.

Several other businesses in White Rock were affected by the rock fall and the buildings closed and deemed unsafe. The A259 along the seafront was closed for two hours by police and firefighters.

Inspector Lee Lyons, of Sussex Police, said: “Thankfully, the gentleman (Mr Watkins Sr) was in the right place at the right time as far as being in the shop was concerned. He was cut off by the rock fall, but was able to talk to colleagues from the fire service who had to work very carefully to free him due to the risk of further collapse of the building or more rock falls. They were successful in doing so and he emerged safe and well.”