Paddington train disaster: 'I can see her trapped, her face behind glass, crying for help. I don't think she made it'

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The Independent Online

THEY SAW the woman's face at the window, terrified, pleading for help. But all attempts to smash the glass failed as the flames spread. For some of those who survived yesterday's crash there was immense relief, but at the same time remorse that the person sitting next to them may have perished.

THEY SAW the woman's face at the window, terrified, pleading for help. But all attempts to smash the glass failed as the flames spread. For some of those who survived yesterday's crash there was immense relief, but at the same time remorse that the person sitting next to them may have perished.

"I can still see her trapped. I can see her face behind the glass, she was crying and calling for help. People tried to get to her, but I don't think she made it," said a passenger, who only wanted his first name, Kola, used. "I am one of the lucky ones ... " his voice trailed away and he started crying. This desolation was felt, it seems, by almost all those who walked away from the twisted, molten metal, the shocking end to a routine rail ride.

It was 8.11am as the Great Western InterCity train thundered towards London. It had left Cheltenham at 6.03, picked up more passengers on its way through the Cotswolds and was packed with rush-hour commuters after its last stops at Didcot and Reading.

With a mile to go to Paddington, many passengers were folding their papers, gathering coats, bags and briefcases.

In an instant this everyday scene turned to chaos. "I was hanging on to a handrail reading my paper ... when there was this massive bang," said Stuart Allen, a clerk in the finance department of the Lord Chancellor's Office in central London. "There was smoke and this acrid smell. As I was standing there I could see flames coming past the window. I now suppose that was the other train."

The other train was a two-carriage Thames Trains service that five minutes earlier had left Paddington for Bedwyn in Wiltshire. It too was packed, with 150 passengers.

In her second-floor flat in nearby Ladbroke Grove, west London, Abigail Murray was frozen to the spot by the bang as the trains, each thought to be travelling at about 60mph, collided. It sounded, she said, like a bomb. "It was a huge noise and it came from the railway tracks," said Ms Murray, a secretary at a publishing company.

"I rushed to the balcony and I could see the train lying on its side. I could see flames jumping from the train and there was a great mushroom cloud of thick black smoke. Everything went silent for 15 seconds. Then I heard the sound of screaming."

Below, hundreds of people were fighting for their lives. Amelia Bale, 25, from Reading, was in the buffet car of the InterCity when she realised her carriage had sheared off from the rest of the train. She and fellow passengers scrambled from the wreckage.

"Some of us helped each other down to the rails and we saw another carriage alongside that was burning, with people coming out badly burnt, so we tried to help but we realised we were on the wrong side of the track and we needed to get across. As we clambered out we saw a lot of smoke and that was far worse than the fire. There were people shouting, 'Don't panic - try and stay calm'." The impact of the crash created a fire ball that sent smoke and debris flying. Passengers flung to the floor desperately tried to get out through doors and broken windows. Many smashed their way out using broken seats. Many later spoke of the smell of burnt flesh.

In the immediate aftermath and in the absence of emergency services, passengers tried to help each other. While some struggled to make calls on mobile phones, many of those who were able to get out stopped beside the wreckage to try to help those still trapped.

The novelist Jilly Cooper, who had boarded at Cheltenham, said: "I thought I was going to die, and I know how lucky I am. I was one carriage away from the one that was hit, the impact was astonishing. I thought it was the end. But then I heard a girl next to me crying, and my first thought was, 'Thank God, I'm alive.' The window near me was smashed and the ones who could, crawled out. There were people with blood all over their face, and I thought then that some people must have died."

Andrew Rosenheim, managing director of Penguin Press, was in the front carriage, and suffered burns to his hands, cuts and bruises. "I was in the first carriage ... with Bruce Balmer, a lawyer, who I see on the train every day.

"The first thing we heard was a bang," he said. "We ... knew we had hit something. Then it felt as though there was another bang. There was no sense of braking beforehand but there was a lot of braking after we hit. The lights went out and it was dark. There were loud voices and lots of exclamations ... The whole carriage went over on its side. It was still moving. Then we stopped. There was fire and one was aware of the smoke. Before we discovered where we were, we were aware of the flames. I called out to Bruce 'Are you all right, are you all right?' That is when we realised we had survived but the fear was the fire.

"Someone shouted out like they were in pain. Another shouted, 'Oh Christ, someone help me.' There was light from the fire then I thought, 'How do we get out?' There was the terror of being trapped. I turned to Bruce. We were lying sprawled about the carriage. I was about to say to him 'Break the window' but we realised the window had already been shattered. The frame was on fire and there was fire in the carriage. A lot of people were badly burned.

"I was scared at first there would be a wall of fire. It all happened in about 10 seconds. I did not feel confident I would be able to get out ... Bruce hauled himself out of the window and jumped on to the gravel by the side of the track. When I got to the window the metal was hot. I was surprisingly energised at first. You thought you did not know how people were but in fact they seemed to get up on the window quickly without panic and without mad pushing and scrambling. I landed with a jolt on the gravel. It was a 10-foot drop ... "Several [survivors] were clearly not all right. One man had a jacket on and it was smoking with fire. We went to get his jacket off. Another man was very dazed. He seemed to have lost most of his clothes, I think because the heat was so intense. This went on for some time.

"We heard sirens ... but I think at first they were not certain where exactly we were, although that is not a criticism. They could not get to us at first because it was fenced off. They cut through the fence and paramedics and firefighters came over to us - they were very impressive."

For Patrick Wellcome, it was the second big accident in two weeks. He was on a Qantas flight that recently crashed in Thailand. An information technology trainer from Queensland, Australia, he had a feeling something was about to happen. "I realised the train was stopping quite sharply and I had a memory of what happened two weeks ago. I bent over and braced myself.

"Then there was this terrific noise and the train slid on its side. There were things falling on me, but I managed to get them off. I saw the bloke in front of me was in quite a bad way, and I did what I could. But there were injured people everywhere. I looked to my left and saw someone else who had been hurt, he had been crushed by something.

"When I looked to my other side I realised the train had gone, the side of the train had gone. I managed to grab a handrail and went on to the outside of the train. There were carriages on their sides, and fire everywhere. There were a couple of power lines, and at that stage I was more afraid of electrocution than anything else. Then I saw some ladders being pushed towards me and I began to climb out, I knew I was safe."

The ladders were produced by staff at a Sainsbury's supermarket next to the track.

Tom Elder, a geologist who got on the train at Wantage, recalled the fires which began immediately after the crash. "The carriages were ripped apart and we were thrown around," he said. "There were people obviously badly injured. Seats had been torn off. We got outside and saw people covered in blood, it was a terrible sight."

Eoin Lees, chief executive of the Energy Saving Trust, had boarded at Didcot. He believed he survived because he had his back to the engine on impact. "There were two loud bangs and then derailment ... I saw a lady still on her seat, except she was no longer on the train but outside. She was completely blackened, but at that stage I think she was still alive. I really don't know what happened to her afterwards. I cannot believe this has taken place, this is just another Southall isn't it? What is going on?"

Chris Norman, from Abingdon, Oxfordshire, said: "I remember the conductor shouting 'Everyone stay where you are' but there was no chance of that. A fire started and we could hear fire engines and ambulances outside. One fireman was shouting 'turn the hose on those carriages, the extinguishers are empty'. I came out and there was a dead body, it was a dreadful thing to see."

Susan Smith, a clerk, was returning to London after spending a long weekend with her parents near Reading and was anxious she may be late for work. "I kept looking at my watch ... and then there was this shattering impact.

"I could feel the carriage I was in lift up in the air and then come down again. The woman behind me started to moan, she sounded terribly hurt. Stupidly, my first thought was, where is my handbag, and then I realised I must get out because the carriage was filling with smoke. There was someone jamming one of the windows and he got pushed out of, so that the rest of us could climb out.

"When I came out I saw one of the carriages had been cut open as if with a can opener. People around me were in a daze, they were shouting and crying, and I saw two seats lying on the track. I could taste blood coming down my face, but I wasn't badly hurt. I kept thinking about what happened to the woman who had been crying.

"As I was walking away I saw a man whose coat appeared to be on fire, one of the rescuers threw a blanket over him. At that point I started crying, and I have been sort of crying ever since."

Lines of the walking wounded were taken to the cafe of the supermarket for emergency treatment, while those in a less serious condition sat on the bench outside being consoled by the staff.

Away from the scene, the politicians and officials arrived to promise full inquiries and a commitments to finding out what had happened.

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