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Our darkest hour?

Next Wednesday Cornwall will be thrown into darkness at 11am during Britain's first 100% eclipse in over seventy years. Millions are expected to head west for the experience but engineers and planners say they are ready to deal with whatever logistical ch

Helicopters are ready to pick up road accident victims trapped on gridlocked roads, soldiers are poised to police massive tailbacks, and millions of gallons of bottled water lie in wait should Devon and Cornwall run dry.

These are the worst case scenarios that eclipse planners dare not speak of in public. Behind closed doors, an emergency planning group chaired by the Police and involving the Highways Agency and Devon and Cornwall County Councils has imagined such scenes since October 1997 and practised their response.

Cornwall County Council's eclipse co-ordinator Gage Williams, who sits on the committee, says: 'We have imagined a major shipping accident, serious pollution at sea or a large aviation crash and worked out how to co-ordinate our response. For example, we have agreement from the utilities like South West Water and BT that they will send their helicopters to help with any incident. Depending on which helicopter arrives in front, you could have BT first on the scene to deal with a burst water main.'

Forecasts of apocalyptic scenes resulting from police estimates of up to 4M visitors, have been toned down. Planners insist that no more than 1.5M could physically get into the region in the week leading up to the event.

Williams says: 'There is no precedent for assessing numbers on top of the 250,000 tourists who would normally be in Cornwall in August. But two UK-wide polls commissioned by Cornwall CC point to about 1.2M people in Cornwall over the period, and a further 500,000 in south Devon.'

Existing accommodation in Cornwall can cope with 250,000 visitors, while 370,000 are expected to stay with friends and family. Existing campsites could squeeze in an extra 80,000 people and 100,000 are expected to sleep in their cars or brave farmers' fields. The extra 400,000 visitors anticipated will need to be put up in temporary campsites. Campsites licensed by the six district councils in Cornwall so far tot up to 271,000 places. Williams is confident the region could accommodate an extra 100,000-plus 'unofficially' without endangering the best laid logistical plans and boosting Cornwall's famed black economy.

The emergency planning group has calculated that 17,500 eclipse seekers will need a doctor next week. Locums have been drafted in and there will be an ambulance within 13km of anyone in the region. All 21 hospitals in Cornwall will be upgraded to include accident and emergency capability. The police, fire and ambulance services have been put on full alert. Part time firemen, which make up 60% of the service, will be brought up to full time working. Bluelight services will be augmented by army motorcycle patrols.

Thirty military policemen will be put at the disposal of the Highways Agency to police diversions in the event of major road accidents. Leave has been cancelled at Culdrose Royal Naval Air Station in Cornwall. 'Pilots are standing by and seven large helicopters could be called on for a life saving role if there was a major accident,' says Williams.

Lorries carrying food and other essentials will avoid the jams by travelling through the night. Somerfield supermarkets, with 55 stores in the South West, has stock piled 200,000 litres of bottled water, 350,000 cans of baked beans and 320,000 loo rolls in temporary portacabins at the back of their stores. Bulk deliveries to shore lines are planned to ensure the half a million people expected to turn up in 100,000 boats don't go hungry.

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