A freak accident with fatal consequences: How the disaster of Great Heck unfolded

The crash
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The Independent Online

As the passengers lined the platform of Newcastle Central station yesterday morning they were pleasantly surprised that the 4.45am to King's Cross was due to leave on time.

As the passengers lined the platform of Newcastle Central station yesterday morning they were pleasantly surprised that the 4.45am to King's Cross was due to leave on time.

After the blizzards that had battered the North many feared their journey would be a difficult one. Little did they know how difficult.

Within two hours, the name of Great Heck, a small hamlet in North Yorkshire, was to join that of Clapham, Paddington and Hatfield in the roll-call of British rail disasters.

This time, however, the accident does not appear to be the fault of privatisation, of fat cat rail bosses, of complacency. The crash at Great Heck near Selby was caused by a set of circumstances that could, in all probability, have been neither prevented nor foreseen.

It involves a 36-year-old man leaving his Lincolnshire home little more than an hour earlier in a green Land Rover Discovery towing a low loader bearing a dark blue Renault estate car.

Bound for Manchester, he was less than an hour from his destination when the four-wheel-drive is believed to have suffered a blow out just short of a bridge spanning the east coast line a mile away from Great Heck.

The four-wheel-drive left the carriageway about 30 yards short of barriers that would have halted his momentum. It plunged down a 30 degree incline before coming to rest two or three feet across the track.

The driver stumbled clear and reached for his mobile telephone to warn the emergency services of the blockage on the track.

The low-loader and car were virtually undamaged and the motorist was only slightly injured with whiplash, but he knew what was about to happen.

He told the operator: "There's a train coming." Then, in increasingly frantic tones, he added: "The train's here!" The operator heard "a bang" as the man told her: "It's just hit my Land Rover."

The train's momentum and the gradient carried it, derailed but upright, rocking down the line through a set of points towards Great Heck and the next disastrous coincidence - the lumbering 24-wagon freight train hauling 1,000 tons of imported coal from the Humberside port of Immingham to the Ferrybridge power station, probably travelling at 70mph .

Within minutes of the trains colliding, the lights on the police switchboard at North Yorkshire Police headquarters were lighting up with callers telling of the derailment.

Peter Hintz, ringing in on his mobile phone, was among them. He had been asleep at his home in Station Terrace, next to the track at Great Heck, when the intercity express awoke him with a noise that he has not been accustomed to hearing in the 15 years he has lived 50 yards from the east coast line.

"You know the sound of trains [and that one] sounded extremely loud," he said. "Something was wrong." He emerged to find the freight train's wagons and cargo in his front garden and his wooden workshop flattened.

When the driver had made his call, at 6.12am, Brenda Kell, 60, was in the rear carriage of the passenger train, contemplating her day trip to Calais. Those around her were drinking coffee. "All of a sudden there was a shuddering under the train - everything was shaking, " she said. "I don't think we were on the line by then. It was frightening and I just held on tight to steady myself. Then there was an enormous crash. There were fumes coming in at first and we could not get the door open but there werepeople helping and I managed to climb out. We were lucky to be in the last carriage."

Others told of an eerie silence in the minutes after the crash. "There was no screaming. Everything was quiet for a time," said a 65-year-old computer scientist, Peter Brunskill, one of 12 passengers from the same carriage - the second from the rear of the passenger train - who had scrambled up over seats to escape.

"I felt as though there was something scraping underneath the train, tearing at the bottom of it. The seat next to me was torn out by the impact. I'm not injured. I'm just shaken up. We were the first ones out."

Plenty more had to scramble to safety. The passenger train had at least 100 people on board its 11 carriages and had already stopped at Durham, Darlington and Northallerton on its way south at a speed of 125mph.

When Graham Buckle, North Yorkshire's assistant divisional fire officer, arrived on the scene in the first fire engine at around 6.30am, he found villagers and passengers on the field where the carriages had rested. It was a scene ofcarnage.

The southern end of the passenger train was in tatters, broken apart like a toy. One wagon had been jolted into the air and completely smashed; others lay on their sides; one came to rest on its own, 50 yards into a field. And everywhere there were bogeys and wheels, cogs, pieces of engine and the personal belongings of the passengers.

A man in his fifties, who had already helped several passengers, walked across to plead with Mr Buckle to help an injured young woman in his carriage. She later walked free, joining the passengers who mingled on the field with villagers offering blankets, comfort and their homes as temporary refuge.

Fire officers were allocated a carriage of the train each and appraised the injuries. There was one immediate certainty - that any passengers in the buffet car that lay flattened in the field, its colourful seats scattered, were dead. "[That] carriage was a virtually lost case," said Mr Buckle, fighting to be heard above the sound of helicopters that took the badly injured to Leeds.

The train's first-class passengers - whose carriages were at the front of the train - bore the brunt of the crash.

Twelve people were killed almost immediately and, for the 75 firefighters from four forces at the scene, the effort to cut four casualties free took two hours, a relatively brief time compared with the Paddington disaster in 1999. "We tried to reassure them," said Mr Buckle. "We don't treat them like children. Some of the passengers asked if others were dead. We can't answer that question."

The wounded were taken to a nearby barn - some walking, some laid out - and comforted by two local clergy. The eerie calm in the half light of the barn struck the vicar of Selby Abbey, the Reverend Keith Jukes. "There was a calmness and efficiency about it," he said. "The efforts of those helped impressed me immensely."

By 9am, fire officers had detected an unexpected hint of life in an unreachable section of train between two carriages that had concertinaed. Thermal imaging equipment confirmed that a passenger was stuck and officers drilled a hole in the carriage roof and dropped a vibraphone digital video camera to locate her. Their efforts succeeded. She was the last to be removed - at 1pm.

At the northern end of the collision, the green and yellow Freightline train, had also come off the tracks, skewing across the front gardens of Station Terrace, crushing a caravan, a garden shed, workshop and summerhouse, and coming to rest only yards short of family homes.

The inhabitants could not believe they had escaped. Dean Puddephat, who has four girls, said: "We were asleep. We were not woken by the sound of the impact but by the emergency services. I looked out of the window and just saw the top of a coal wagon. It was eerily quiet. It was like Great Heck was living in the middle of a war zone."

Another inhabitant, Kath O'Brien, despaired of the family caravan that was written off. "We spent months looking for that make of caravan and only had two trips out on it," she said. "But that's nothing in the scale of things, I suppose."

After John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, had been and gone, buffeted by one of the brief snow storms that hindered fire crews as they pored over the wreckage through the day, Great Heck prepared for the bereaved.

The Rev Cyril Edwards, vicar of the local Snaith diocese, who had been tending the wounded, returned to open up the village church as a sanctuary for the bereaved. "The Bishop of Doncaster has said he will be here with me," said Mr Edwards.

"It is difficult to offer much consolation at times like this. But the village is a bystander in all of this and now it will do what it can to help."