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Father and daughter killed in M5 crash were on way back from funeral

Thick clouds of smoke from nearby firework display being blamed for motorway pile-up

A father and daughter travelling together on the M5 were revealed yesterday to have been among the victims of the UK's worst road accident for 20 years.

Michael Barton and his daughter Margaret were named by friends who confirmed that a second daughter, Emma, was critically ill in a coma after being pulled from the wreckage.

Thick clouds of smoke over the motorway from a firework display has emerged as the most likely cause of the pile-up between junction 24 and 25 in Somerset that left seven people dead and more than 50 others hurt. Eight of the most severely injured were still in hospital yesterday.

Police have launched an investigation into the crash and ensuing fireball after witnesses reported that visibility on the motorway was hampered severely because of a bank of smoke that may have come from a display at Taunton Rugby Club. Fog was present over parts of the M5 on Friday night, but it is now believed smoke is the more significant factor, with one motorist describing it as being as "thick as emulsion".

None of the dead have yet been formally identified by police as most of the remains are thought to be too badly damaged by fire to be recognisable. Formal identification will rely on forensics methods such as matching dental records and taking DNA samples. Mr Barton and his daughters, along with Emma's boyfriend Christopher Burbull, were travelling along the motorway having attended a funeral earlier in the day. Mr Burbill was among the injured.

A neighbour living in the same street in Windsor as the Barton family said Maggie and Emma's mother had died several years previously and that the sisters were "very close". She described Maggie as "the loveliest person you could ever meet".

Pamela and Anthony Adams, a couple from Newport, Gwent, were also feared to be among the dead. They had visited their daughter, Tonia White, in Taunton and were on their way home.

Assistant Chief Constable Anthony Bangham, of Avon and Somerset Police, is heading the investigation into the accident and said yesterday afternoon: "Our main line of inquiry has now moved towards the event that was on the side of the carriageway.

"We do believe that while there was fog and it was difficult conditions in the area, that actually from witness evidence there was very significant smoke across the carriageway that in effect caused a bank similar to a fog bank, which was very distracting and very difficult to drive through. We will be doing everything we can to find out as quickly as we're able to what's behind that."

He added: "We believe from the witnesses and from what we're being told that it was smoke and not fog. The vehicles and people who were entering into the smoke bank have just described it as being impossible to drive through."

The carnage on the northbound carriageway and the grounds of the nearby Taunton Rugby Club, where the firework display took place, were inspected in detail by crime investigators.

The display is thought to have finished a few minutes before the crash at around 8.25pm, but smoke is thought to have lingered in thick clouds.

But there was confusion over the source of the smoke, as the company responsible for the display told Channel 4 that the smoke from its fireworks had drifted away from the motorway.

Colin Bentley, part of the rugby club's marketing team, told the Somerset County Gazette: "Everybody at the club is incredibly upset at the terrible loss of life in the tragedy on the M5 – no one could fail to be moved by it.

"My heart, soul and prayers go out to those affected. The club is supporting the police in their enquires. I don't believe the club has done anything improper. Checks and risk assessments were done."

Safety: road deaths

Road deaths are far lower than they were 50 years ago, when the number of cars on the streets of Britain was a fraction of today's figures.

In 2010, according to Department for Transport statistics, there was a 17 per cent reduction in fatalities from 2009 with 1,850 people being killed in road accidents, of which 118 were motorway fatalities. More than 22,000 people were seriously injured. Safety on the roads has made steady improvements since 1958 when with just 4.5 million cars compared to the 31 million driven today, there were 5,970 deaths.

The first motorway to open in the UK was a stretch of the M6 in 1958.

According to the Association of British Drivers, the UK's motorways have among the best safety records in Europe with two deaths for every billion kilometres driven, compared to 4.5 in Germany, 5.4 in France and 14.1 in Portugal.