Paddington: one year later

A year after the crash, survivors, rescuers and the bereaved recall that dreadful morning
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The Independent Online

On 5 October 1999, two trains ploughed into one another at Ladbroke Grove in west London. Thirty-one people were killed; 400 were injured.

On 5 October 1999, two trains ploughed into one another at Ladbroke Grove in west London. Thirty-one people were killed; 400 were injured.

 

THE SENIOR CONDUCTOR

It was Colin Paton's birthday, and he had thought about taking the day off. Instead, he went to work and found himself having to take charge at one of Britain's worst train disasters. With both drivers dead, and no conductor on the Thames train, Mr Paton, the senior conductor on the Great Western, had to assume responsibility for the safety of the 750-odd passengers before the emergency services arrived.

Mr Paton, who was in the guard's van when the accident happened, called control requesting the arrival of all emergency services, and asking that the overhead power lines hanging down over the line were shut off, and that the signals were turned to red. Another high speed train was four minutes behind them.

''People were shouting and screaming. I was just feeling total shock,'' says Mr Paton, 56, from Bristol, who had been a conductor for three years when the crash came.

''People were shouting: 'There are people trapped in here, you've got to get them out,'' says Mr Paton, who is divorced with five children. ''I got hold of a fire extinguisher but it didn't work. I got another one and emptied it against the train, but it was just like spitting in the wind. I swung it at the window to try and get the people out, but it just kept bouncing off. Vandals had been using the escape hammers to damage the train, so some bright spark came up with the idea of taking the hammers out.''

His over-riding feeling during the accident was one of inadequacy. ''How can any one person be expected to take charge of a train crash involving 750 people? If the customers had all walked away and left me to it, it would have been a physical impossibility. The training you get is just so inadequate to deal with something like that.''

Mr Paton still hasn't returned to work. He suffers from a continual headache, and in February was diagnosed with severe post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression. He has received counselling, and is undergoing treatment for an injury to his neck and back. His girlfriend has also had to undergo counselling to deal with his change in personality.

''I've had two visits from the company in 11 months, and just feel a lot more could have been done. I got to the stage of bringing the accident out into the open, only for the feelings to be replaced by anger that you are so isolated. I would hate to think what would happen if I'd done something wrong that day.''

 

THE PASSENGER

Tony Knox began the day thinking he was lucky. His bus was late, but he still managed to get to Reading station on time to catch his train to work. However it turned out to be the doomed Great Western. If Mr Knox is grateful for one thing, it is that he didn't have time to walk down the platform to coach H where he normally stood. ''I've since learned that the people who were at the front all died,'' says the senior lecturer in paediatric intensive care for South Bank University.

He remembers suddenly feeling an almighty pain as he was thrown into the table in front of him. ''I opened my eyes and we were in a big tunnel of fire. I thought: 'God, we're going to stop in this and just get roasted','' says Mr Knox, 41, from Reading. The coach stopped and filled with smoke. Eventually the passengers managed to break open a window and jump out. Knox administered first aid on a number of passengers. ''There were people trapped in the middle carriage of the Thames train screaming. It was on fire. Myself and a couple of other people went back into it to try and get them out, but it was too hot.

With the help of two police officers he tried to resuscitate a passenger. ''All we got for our efforts was a fountain of blood out of his mouth and nose,'' he remembers. They eventually agreed it was hopeless. After handing out neck collars to the injured, Mr Knox was in too much pain to continue - he had several broken ribs and a collapsed lung. He was about to leave when he saw a woman being brought out of the burning carriage he had previously tried to enter. ''She had obviously been completely on fire, all her clothing was smouldering. She had no hair. She reached out to me, but I couldn't - I'd had enough. It's something I've felt guilty about ever since, not sitting and holding her hand while she died.''

He went back to work three days after the accident. ''I went to get over the fear of travelling," says Mr Knox, a father-of-three. "Between then and February it got to the stage where I couldn't get on a train without being physically sick."

In February his boss told him that he needed to take time off. Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, he can't see himself returning in the near future. He is receiving counselling. ''I've gone from being a confident person to being somebody who has no faith in anything any more. I relive it every day. I get flashbacks of the fireball, the injured people... I relive it when I'm asleep in nightmares.''

 

THE FIREFIGHTER

Firefighter Sally Cox became the face of the Paddington rail disaster when a photograph of her at the scene apparently crying appeared on the front of national newspapers. She wishes it had never been taken.

''I was called 'The Nation's Heroine' and it was very difficult to live up to. I didn't ask for it, and I didn't want it,'' says Mrs Cox, 32, who lives in north London, and who still gets recognised today. ''I didn't do anything special, I was just doing my job. Because of all the attention I got, it kind of made it exciting for me, which it shouldn't have been.''

Mrs Cox arrived at the scene on the second day as part of a specialist rescue team. She and four colleagues removed two bodies from carriage B2 of the Thames train, which had toppled over and concertinaed. It took five hours.

''You detach yourself from what you're doing at the time, and just get on with the job. You can't think about whether this man had kids, or if this woman has a husband sitting at home wondering where she is because you'd just drive yourself mad.''

A firefighter since 1996, she had seen more gruesome sights, but nothing on this scale. ''It was very eerie and quiet. There was no laughing and joking going on like there usually is between crews.''

When they left the scene, she and her four colleagues went to a pub for a drink, where they discussed the technical side of the task they had just carried out. ''Men don't talk about their emotions, they don't like to look weak by discussing that side of it. We kept it inside but we knew that the others were thinking the same thing - how sad it was. Just knowing that they had all seen what I had was comforting.''

The next day her photograph appeared in the national press. ''I was really angry that they had assumed I was crying. The last thing I wanted was for people to think that I couldn't cope with the job because I'm a woman. I was actually wiping away sweat.''

Married with an 11-year-old son, she has since been promoted two ranks to sub-officer (which was unconnected with her work at Ladbroke Grove), and is currently an assistant trainer. ''I can't say that the accident has stayed with me, and if that makes me sound cold or hard I'm sorry, but if I sat and thought about all the jobs that I went to I wouldn't get anything done, and would be in tears all the time. Before I had ever seen a dead body one firefighter told me not to look at their eyes, because it makes them real. And it's true.''

THE BEREAVED

When Gerald Corbett, chief executive of Railtrack, gave evidence at the Cullen enquiry in July, Robin Kellow changed in front of him into a T-shirt which read: ''You killed my daughter.'' Elaine Kellow, 24, an intellectual property manager who lived in London, was commuting to work on the Thames train when it crashed.

Mr Kellow, 62, a retired industrial chemist from Gargrave, North Yorkshire, saw the accident on breakfast television with his wife Diana, 57, a nurse. ''I waited all morning expecting her to call and say 'Hi mum! I'm OK, it's all right', but it never came,'' says Mrs Kellow, breaking down into tears. ''By midday we had found out the names of the injured so then we knew. We were devastated,'' says Mr Kellow. ''I suppose I started crying around 3.30pm.'' He hasn't stopped.

Two days after the crash the couple, who have two sons, Clark, 30, and Jason, 29, joined 40-odd families at a London hotel waiting for official confirmation of whether their loved-one was dead or alive. ''Everyone was crying. There was nothing you could do. You just had to sit and wait until it was your turn to go behind the screens,'' says Mr Kellow. ''We knew she was dead. There was no need for the delay in telling us - she had no visible injuries and was immediately identifiable.

''I suppose it comes down to being your worst nightmare that you can imagine. I'm supposed to die first,'' he says, his voice breaking. ''It's the wrong way round.

''Daughters are slightly different to sons.We've still got the lads, but there's a big chunk out of the cake. Nothing can ever fill that hole. I feel empty and angry. It changes your whole character. I'm more antagonistic, I write letters to people and go on television. It's just dispersing my anger. I suppose I could quite cheerfully kill anybody who I felt was responsible, without blinking.''

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