After the crash: a love story

When Tony Jasper and Jan Vaughan crawled free from the wreckage of the Paddington rail disaster, they never imagined that their experiences would one day bring them together. Julia Stuart hears how the couple found romance in the most extreme circumstances
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The Independent Online

An envelope marked "Wedding Certificate" sits next to a box of thank you notes on a wooden chair in the corner of the lounge. Judging by the amount of presents on the floor and bouquets in front of the fireplace, Tony Jasper and Jan Vaughan will take a while to write them all. The pair, just back from honeymoon after their marriage on Valentine's Day, need no encouragement from the photographer to look like a couple in love as they pose for the camera.

The happy couple, Tony, 51, and Jan, 53, were both victims of the Paddington rail crash, which killed 31 and injured 600 in October 1999 when a Thames train passed through a red light and smashed into a First Great Western express. They met in July 2000, nine months after the crash, on a minibus taking members of the Paddington Survivors Group, who couldn't face travelling by train, to the Cullen inquiry into the tragedy, which was held at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster. "It was a beautiful building, and I invited Jan to have a look around it," says Tony. He invited her out to dinner the following week. Within months, the couple, both longtime divorcees, were in love. They moved in together the following September.

"Neither of us were looking for a relationship when we met because we were both a bit traumatised, but it just happened," says Jan. "We were able to understand each other. We were both going through PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], and we could recognise that in each other, so there were no expectations. If Tony was going through a really bad patch I would rally to the cause and try to lessen the burden, and vice versa. We could tell instantly if one of us was sinking or not coping, and we were able to make the decision of just leaving them be or bringing them out of it."

As they recall the horrific accident that eventually brought them together, the couple's smiles disappear. Jan takes Tony's hand as he recalls there being two trains for London when he arrived at Didcot Parkway station that morning. A high-flying executive for a multinational computer company, he chose the emptier of the two and, always mindful of safety, sat in carriage E, located in the middle of the train. As the First Great Western express started to lose control, he assumed the crash position on the floor while everyone around him screamed. "I had to ignore the social niceties of getting down by people's legs and just go into survival mode," he remembers. As a huge fireball came down along the outside of the train, he could feel the heat coming through the glass and assumed he was going to burn to death. When he survived, he figured he would die on impact. When he was still alive after the train finally came to a halt, he thought he was going to choke to death on the smoke filling up the carriage.

The doors' central locking system was on and Tony shouted for someone to pass him one of the train's emergency hammers. He was handed one that had broken when somebody used it to try and smash a window. Remarkably, Tony had been trained in the emergency evacuation of buildings by his company when, years ago, it had received a spate of IRA bomb warnings, and so he knew how to tap on glass until it broke. Once out of the door's window, he wrapped his coat around the high voltage power lines that had crashed onto the track in an attempt to isolate the current. As people started following him he organised a catching party and helped 25 people out of the carnage. "I was simply one of the few people who were thinking. In later life, that took its toll. Whatever I had that day I used up; there's nothing left now," he says.

But it was not the end of his heroism. He then walked back to the Thames train, the rear coach of which was on its side. Tony saw a hand waving out of a window - now facing the sky - and asked four men to throw him up there. The hand belonged to an off-duty train driver whom he pulled out. Below them, passengers were stuck in the dark and the fire was fast surrounding them. The pair started pulling the passengers out one by one, and organised people to catch them as they slid down the side of the train.

Tony swallows. Jan gently asks him whether he wants to stop. "No, I'm going to keep going, I'm going to keep going," he says, and picks up his tale.

One passenger panicked and almost knocked him over. "I held the next person by the scruff of their neck, so they couldn't get hold of me, and then lowered them down to the catching party beneath. We just kept pulling people out. We didn't know when the fuel-soaked train was going to catch fire." Tony and the train driver rescued about 40 people and were both subsequently presented with a British Transport Police Chief Constable Commendation.

It was also chance that led Jan, then an assistant benefit consultant for a large pensions company, to board the First Great Western train. It had been a frosty morning and she had been delayed on her journey because she had been scraping ice off her windscreen.

"I felt a jolt, and then there was another, and people were being thrown around," says Jan, who was sitting in coach C when the collision occurred. The next thing she remembers is coming to. "I could see flames coming up the side of the carriage. There were already people walking outside who were badly burnt. It was surreal." She climbed down from the door - the central locking system had now been switched off - and onto the side of the track. "It was just like walking into a horror movie set," she says, but is unable to continue. Tony picks up her story.

"It was like a strange, strange picnic all across the railway tracks," he explains. "People were sitting or lying among bags and coats. They were black from head to toe." "People were trying to comfort one another," Jan resumes. "There were quite a few bodies outside our carriage, and I couldn't see how they had got there. They were people from the Thames train. They'd been flung over the top."

Jan suffered whiplash and both she and Tony had cuts and bruises. But it was only later that the real damage became apparent. Tony went back to work within several days. Nine months later, however, he was diagnosed with depression and PTSD and was signed off work for two years. "I wasn't functioning," he says. "I couldn't concentrate long enough to achieve anything. I was also susceptible to any kind of sudden noise, which put me back on the train. Your mind is still working, but it's working in the wrong place. I had an embarrassing moment when I was in Houston, talking to some clients at a high-level meeting, and the customer said to me: 'Tony you should be paying attention to this.' My mind had totally gone. I was so embarrassed."

Tony had cognitive behavioural therapy for a year. "I was probably a very difficult client because I wasn't really accepting the illness. I did come round in the end. The counselling got me so far - there was a marked improvement - but then it reached a plateau. There's a residual PTSD that I believe will never, ever go away."

A psychologist recommended that he find a local, low-stress, part-time job as part of the recovery process. He resigned from his computing job, and, in October 2002, found work putting out traffic cones on roads and erecting temporary traffic lights. He lasted two months. "What I found was that low pay doesn't mean low stress, it just means you earn less," he says. "I couldn't handle having to deal with people. Even just putting cones on the road, I couldn't take the abuse of some of the drivers." He then worked as a van driver for a supermarket chain, but also found that too much. Sometimes he would get lost before he'd reached the end of the street. He left, again after only two months.

In March 2003, he started working part-time at a locksmith's and moved to his current bungalow in Earley, near Reading, so he wouldn't have to commute. But he only lasted until November. "I just couldn't cope with people being in the shop. Once I went out the back and hid," he says. "I went back to my GP, who said it was time that I accepted I had chronic PTSD. It's been very difficult - I've always been a coper, someone who will go out and find solutions and fix things. I had to accept that I couldn't fix this." He still has nightmares and doubts if he will ever work again.

For her part, Jan took six weeks off work immediately after the crash, and then resigned. "I thought the best way forward was to try and find a local job and come down a few levels," she explains. She worked as a secretary for 10 months, but then "fell apart" and was signed off sick for 15 months. She resumed work for a limited amount of hours a week, but has just been made redundant. She, too, doubts whether she will ever work again.

At the end of last year, both received compensation from the joint insurers of Railtrack and Thames Trains. If they manage it carefully, they will be financially secure for the rest of their lives. "The money replaces what we have lost in income, not how we live our lives," says Tony. "I had the most wonderful job that people would be very jealous of. I was very well paid, and very well thought of, and I loved doing it. Never to be able to do that again cannot be compensated for."

Tony and Jan married at Reading's register office and honeymooned in Cornwall, as going abroad seemed too stressful on top of arranging a wedding. They plan to take one day at a time and, when they feel up to it, hope to restore an old farmhouse they have bought in Burgundy.

But today they are just happy to be at home surrounded by reminders of a joyful week. Every surface is covered in congratulations cards, a number of which are from fellow survivors and the bereaved. "Something really special has come out of all this," says Jan. "But it's conflicting. There is the 'why me?' thing: 'Why was I on that train?' 'Why was I affected the way I was?' But then there's that lovely side that, if it hadn't been for the crash, Tony and I wouldn't have met."

Tony takes his wife's hand: "In our own way we are very happy, and we are fortunate. We cannot change what happened, but we can make the most of what we have left, and to have met and fallen in love is fantastic."