Paddington train disaster: He is just one of many. But the story of Bob Cotton is a human tragedy on an epic scale

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The Independent Online

BOB Cotton hated being late and, as the InterCity train slowed on its approach to Paddington station, his eye would have been on the clock. The train was a few minutes behind schedule and Mr Cotton had 50 minutes to get into central London for an important meeting.

BOB Cotton hated being late and, as the InterCity train slowed on its approach to Paddington station, his eye would have been on the clock. The train was a few minutes behind schedule and Mr Cotton had 50 minutes to get into central London for an important meeting.

No one yet knows where Mr Cotton was when his First Great Western express collided with a Thames Trains turbo service on Tuesday morning. He may have had a first-class seat in carriage H ÿ the coach at the front, which suffered the worst of the impact. Equally, it may have been Mr Cotton's diligence that led him to his death.

ÒI can imagine Rob not wanting to be late,Ó said a friend yesterday, Òand I can see him getting up to walk down to the front of the train to save a few seconds when he arrived at the platform. He always took meetings seriously and he never liked to be late.Ó

Perhaps nobody will ever know Mr Cotton's last movements for certain. No one has yet been officially confirmed as dead but yesterday, with no word from Mr Cotton for more than 48 hours, he was included among those passengers and drivers either deceased or unaccounted for after the Paddington train disaster. The police statement released yesterday was terse and the language official. ÒWe can confirm Bob Cotton is missing,Ó it read.

ÒAt this stage there are no further details that can be released by either the police or the family. Relatives are still waiting for further information from the Metropolitan Police. Mr Cotton is believed to have boarded the Cheltenham to Paddington train to attend a meeting in London on Tuesday.Ó But behind the simple words lies a tragedy that is being repeated in homes across a swath of southern Britain as families slowly realise that relatives who boarded the 6.03 from Cheltenham will not be coming home.

When the final death toll of Tuesday's crash is eventually known, Mr Cotton's will be one name among many. Yesterday, however, in the Gloucestershire town of Dursley where he lived, he was being remembered and mourned as a well-known individual ÿ a huge bear of a man, a fanatical football fan who supported West Ham United. He was 41, happily married and widely liked, and he will be much missed.

Though Mr Cotton was not originally from Dursley, he played a central role in the life of his community. He was a caretaker at the local comprehensive school, he had served as a Labour councillor on Stroud District Council and he was a staunchly independent member of the town council.

ÒHe was one of the friendliest of people you could ever hope to meet,Ó said John Rawlf, landlord of the Kings Hill Inn, where Mr Cotton would occasionally drop in for a pint of Wadworth's 6X. ÒHe was the sort of bloke who would always be interested in what you had to say. He was a very popular man. This is a tragedy that will affect a lot of people.Ó

Many people in the Cotswold town knew Mr Cotton from his involvement in local politics. As a member of the town council, he was engaged in a number of projects, especially the provision of recreation facilities for youngsters. Fellow councillors admired the fact that he was committed yet relaxed. ÒHe was big in every sense,Ó said Geoff Wheeler, the mayor of Dursley. ÒHe was big physically but he was big in the way he was prepared to listen to people and their problems. He was interested in politics but at a local level. He did not think party politics should be involved.Ó

Another generation of local people also knew him from his job as caretaker at the Rednock School, the comprehensive in Dursley that serves the town and the surrounding area. Mr Cotton had held the position for 14 years and he lived with his wife on the school site. He was popular with the 1,332 pupils and on Wednesday, when they were informed during a special afternoon assembly that he was missing, many were reported to have gone home in tears.

ÒWe told the children that he was believed to have been on the train that was involved in the crash and that he was missing,Ó John Pritchard, the school's headteacher, said yesterday.

Mr Cotton was married to Angela, 36, who yesterday was being comforted by friends and a specially trained trauma counsellor. Mrs Cotton had recently started her own business and had told friends how supportive her husband had been. It is understood the couple, who had no children, were due today to have flown to Florida for a two-week holiday.

Mr Cotton did not drive and it is thought Mrs Cotton may have driven her husband to Stroud station on Tuesday morning where he caught the 6.39am to London. A friend said Mrs Cotton was yesterday still referring to her husband in the present tense.

ÒAngela is traumatised. It hasn't sunk in,Ó Mr Cotton's mother-in-law, Dee Wright, said. ÒShe hadn't heard anything. He hadn't rung. The police came to see us and Angela has had counselling. She is very distraught and is under sedation.Ó

Mr Cotton was also a committed trade union member. He was on the national executive committee of the public services union Unison and vice-chairman of its local government committee. He was popular, respected and great friends with Rodney Bickerstaffe, the union's general secretary, who attended his wedding.

But it was his role on the local government committee that brought Mr Cotton to London on Tuesday. The committee was meeting at 10.30am at its offices in Mabledon Place in central London and Mr Cotton was to meet the chairman at 9am for a pre-meeting briefing.

And so, at 8.11 on Tuesday morning, Mr Cotton found himself on board the express heading into London. The train was a few minutes late and he was almost certainly keeping an eye on the time. He was less than two miles from the station.