Crash driver 'had glasses in hand': Pathologist and survivors give evidence on last moments of victims in school minibus accident. Ian MacKinnon reports

THE TEACHER driving a school minibus which was engulfed in flames after it crashed into a maintenance vehicle on the hard shoulder of the M40, killing her and 12 pupils, was probably putting on or taking off her glasses in the seconds before the tragedy, an inquest jury was told yesterday.

The pathologist who examined the body of Eleanor Fry, 40, a music teacher at Hagley Roman Catholic High School, Hereford and Worcester, found the arm of her spectacles still between her right thumb and forefinger and surmised she must have been changing them.

The evidence emerged on the first day of the hearing at Leamington Spa as two of the crash survivors gave emotional accounts of how their schoolmates had been telling ghost stories and jokes before the crash just after midnight on 18 November. All the children were in high spirits as they and another group in a separate minibus made their way home after an outing to the Schools Proms at the Royal Albert Hall in London.

Two teachers in the second bus passed the scene minutes after the accident, saw the vehicle in flames and feared it might be that of their colleague but drove on and told their pupils it was not from the school to avoid alarming them.

The children and three teachers had left the concert hall not long after 10pm to make the trip back to the Midlands. One of the teachers, Christianne Evans, 24, another music teacher, said that Miss Fry was in good spirits in spite of being passed over for promotion recently and making the decision to stop taking extra-curricular activities. The other teacher, Bernard Tedd, 36, recalled Miss Fry saying as she left the concert: 'Aren't they wonderful kids.'. 'She was obviously in a very positive frame of mind,' he said.

One of the survivors, Holly Caldwell, 13, was so upset by the ordeal of having to give evidence yesterday that her statement explaining the boisterous mood on the journey along the M40 had to be read out as her father Luke, put his arm around her shoulder. 'We were noisy still, especially my friends in the back,' she said. 'We were telling jokes and ghost stories. But I remember saying we had to go to school the next day so we'd better get some sleep. I can't remember anything about the crash.'

But Bethan O'Docherty, 12, the only other survivor, who like Holly was sitting on the bench seats which ran along the sides of the Ford Transit next to the back doors, remained awake. 'The last thing I remember was orange flashing lights in the windows,' she said as she clutched a small teddy bear. 'I don't remember anything after that but I think I was in the roadway.'

Dr Kenneth Holley, pathologist at South Warwickshire hospital, said that Miss Fry had died from shock and haemorrhaging, adding that he had found the arm of her spectacles still trapped between her thumb and her forefinger. He said: 'Miss Fry may have been putting on her spectacles or taking them off at the time.' He said the 10 children who died at the scene - Fionna Cook, 12, James Hickman, 12, Ruth Clark, 12, Louise Gunn, 12, Claire Fitzgerald, 13, Nicola Misiolek, 12, Charlotte Bligh, 12, Richard Pagett, 12, Adele Howell, 12, and Anna Mansell, 14 - died instantly or were unconscious and had not suffered in the fire. Charlene O'Dowd, 12, and Katie Murray, 12, died in the following days.

Later Paul Hill, the headmaster, told the inquest that Hereford and Worcester Education Authority had since the crash offered courses of extra driving skills and 10 of his staff were taking these. The school had also been given two new minibuses and these had front-facing seats with seat belts for passengers, which had also been fitted to the school's existing minibus.

The hearing continues today.

(Photograph omitted)

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