and STEVE BOGGAN
At least 10 people were killed and 20 more injured yesterday when a coach carrying mostly pensioners on a British Legion visit to a brewery plunged down an embankment of the M4, near the Severn Bridge, in Avon.
It came to rest, overturned in 4ft of water in a ditch at the bottom of the embankment. Two of the dead were believed to have drowned.
The party of 29 pensioners, from the Royal British Legion in Christchurch, Dorset, were returning from a trip to the Bass brewery in Cardiff, South Glamorgan, when the accident happened. The driver, Stephen Brown, 39, was among the injured. He took a breathalyser test, which proved negative.
John Dando, Avon Fire Brigade station officer, who was one of the first on the scene of the crash, said: "When I first arrived it was utter carnage - a scene of total devastation. The roof was completely crushed to within inches of the coach floor. There were half a dozen people wandering around on the motorway bloody and dazed."
Richard Thomas, 29, of Bristol, drove past the scene seconds after the accident. "It was absolutely horrific. There was a coach which had ... ploughed down a bank. It was upside down and its roof had caved in. I had never seen anything like it in my life. I hate to think what must have happened to the people inside."
It took hours for firefighters to remove four bodies still trapped by their seat belts in the upturned single-decker coach on the M4 eastbound carriageway, near Bristol. The coach had to be lifted out of the ditch by crane to allow access to rescuers.
Six of the 20 injured were said to be in a "serious" condition. All the injured were taken to Frenchay hospital, near Bristol, and the Bristol Royal Infirmary.
Four elderly people were in intensive care, two of whom were said late last night to be "critical".One apparently suffered a heart attack at the scene, two underwent neural surgery and one had a crushed chest. Others suffered multiple injuries and cuts and bruises.
The coach is owned by Laguna coaches in Bournemouth, Dorset. The company said it was in "good condition" and had seat belts.
Last night shocked pensioners arriving at the British Legion in Christchurch were comforted by local social workers, police, clergy and Salvation Army workers, as well as the Legion's own welfare officers.
Relatives and friends anxious for news were told by police that it could be early today before identities of the dead and injured could be confirmed.
The crash reopened the debate over the compulsory fitting of seat belts. Following two crashes at the end of 1993, in which 23 people were killed, the Government claimed that it could not force UK operators to fit seat belts because it was a matter for the European Community, but urged them to do so.
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents said last night it would urge the Government to make it compulsory for seat belts to be fitted to all coaches and minibuses.
However, coach industry representatives say that many older coaches, up to 60 per cent of those on the road, could not be fitted with belts safely because of design problems.
David Watson, spokesman for the Confederation of Passenger Transport, said: "There are difficulties about where to fit the belts and over the weakness of floors."
The Government has committed itself to ensuring that all coaches and minibuses carrying children must be fitted with belts and the consultation period for this scheme ends on 31 May. A European Commission directive to ensure that all coaches are fitted with belts is due to be published later this year.
Eleven ambulances and an emergency back-up unit - carrying an inflatable tent which can be used to treat casualties at the roadside - were involved in the huge rescue operation.
The cause of the accident was last night unclear, but it appeared there were no other vehicles involved. One woman said she remembered the coach swerving, then nothing more.
Seat belt debate, page 3Reuse content