Heroic truckers win royal thanks for saving lives

British drivers risk their lives to pull injured diners from wreckage after Belgian restaurant collapses, killing 16; 'People were screaming ... we could do nothing'
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The Independent Online
Albert, King of the Belgians, personally thanked two British lorry drivers yesterday for helping rescue three people from a Belgian motorway restaurant which collapsed and burst into flames after an explosion.

Alan Sharpe, 47, from Mapperley Park, Nottingham, a former member of the Parachute Regiment, and John Piff, 52, of Swindon, Wiltshire, were congratulated by the King, who visited the ruined restaurant where 16 people including several children, a baby and an as yet unnamed British lorry driver died.

Mr Sharpe was reading a book in the cab of his truck early on Sunday evening when an explosion ripped through the Wally-Stop Cafeteria and Fina petrol station in Eynatten, a mile from the German border. After the blast the restaurant collapsed and burst into flames.

Mr Sharpe leapt from his cab and was the first person to reach the wrecked building, where he knew many fellow lorry drivers and other customers were eating and drinking.

"Inside it was horrific. People were screaming, one body hung from the ceiling. I could see a young girl lying in the wreckage," Mr Sharpe said.

"She seemed to be terribly injured but she was screaming and I told her 'keep screaming that way and you'll stay alive'. I pulled her out and called for help and my mate came and we both went in to lift out a really big German truck driver who'd gone in to help but the roof collapsed in on him. We pulled the rubble off him and got him clear and then went back for [another] woman."

Mr Piff said: "I had gone to my truck from the restaurant to get some sleep and 10 minutes later there was a huge explosion. I ran to the building. People were shouting for help."

The three people the British drivers rescued suffered severe burns and broken limbs and were flown to hospital by helicopter. The two men subsequently watched helplessly as the fire took hold and 16 other people died. Mr Piff said that after they had rescued the woman, "I noticed a wall of flame and the whole place went up like a tent".

He was reduced to tears as he said they could hear people screaming but could not reach them through the flames. He added: "I am glad I am alive, but I wish I could have done more."

One of the victims was a fellow lorry driver he had known for years, who minutes before had asked him to join him in the restaurant.

"I can't believe how lucky I am," Mr Piff said. "If I'd stayed to have a drink with my mate I wouldn't be here now."

The dead also included 10 Belgians, a family of four Germans and a Croatian. The cause of the explosion is still being investigated.

A gas leak below the restaurant kitchen was at first thought to be the likely cause, but later reports suggest that petrol vapour may have leaked from forecourt storage tanks.

Mr Sharpe and Mr Piff had been due to continue their journeys on Sunday evening, but at the King's insistence they stayed overnight at a hotel.

Yesterday, the men also received more thanks from local officials and were offered counselling to help them cope with the psychological trauma of the tragedy.

Mr Sharpe's employer, Nigel Baxter, transport director of RH Freight Services in Nottingham, said: "Luckily for him and for us he had gone back to his truck when it happened.

"We are very proud that he had the presence of mind to get heavily involved, rescuing people in such a heroic way. I can't say I was surprised. He is not the sort to be a bystander."

Mr Sharpe, described as a career lorry driver, had been taking a compulsory break at the truckstop next to the petrol station while transporting a load of car parts and paper products to Ulm in southern Germany.