Police have warned that the death toll from one of Britain's biggest road traffic accidents is likely to rise after a devastating motorway crash claimed at least seven lives and injured more than 50.
Officers examining the wreckage of mangled and burnt-out cars on the M5 in Somerset said they expected to find still more bodies trapped in vehicles by a massive fireball which engulfed them moments after the collision at around 8.30pm on Friday. The heat was so intense that firefighters were unable to get close enough to rescue many of them. Eyewitness described seeing repeated explosions and many casualties lying on the roadside.
Among those feared killed were Pamela and Anthony Adams from Newport, Gwent, who were returning home after visiting their daughter Tonia White in Taunton. Yesterday Mrs White said the family was frantic for news about the pair. "They would have hit that stretch of the motorway about the time of the accident," she said. "I've been trying to ring them all night. We've been in touch with other family members but nobody's been able to contact them at all today." She said her 73-year-old father and mother, 70, were retired. "The police can't tell me anything. They don't know. As time is going on I'm feeling less and less positive. I've phoned the hospitals but they haven't been admitted. At least they were together."
Fog, wet conditions and possible driver "distraction" prompted by a nearby fireworks display were all being investigated as possible causes, police said yesterday. They appealed for witnesses and video footage as they tried to piece together the sequence of events that triggered one of the UK's worst road crashes in nearly two decades.
Assistant Chief Constable Anthony Bangham from Somerset & Avon Police said vehicles were "burnt and unrecognisable". "Sadly I can now confirm seven people have died as a result of this incident," he said. "We fear that number will rise. It's a real mash of many, many vehicles. We believe there are still casualties trapped."
He praised fellow motorists who risked their lives to try to help those trapped. "The intensity of the fire – it was a fireball on the carriageway – made it incredibly difficult for people to approach," he said. "People did their very best." A police hotline for people worried about missing loved ones has been inundated with hundreds of calls.
He confirmed police were investigating whether motorists may have been distracted by any nearby events. About 1,000 people had gathered that evening for a fireworks display at Taunton Rugby Club, next to the motorway.
Oli Massingham, a spokesman for the rugby club, declined to speculate about the causes of the crash. "The only thing I will say is that the firework display started at 8pm and finished at 8.15pm," he said.
Seventeen of the most seriously injured were taken to nearby Musgrove Park Hospital. Those less seriously injured were taken to Yeovil. Colin Close, Musgrove's medical director, admitted they had dealt with "nothing of this magnitude ever before". One surgeon was flown in by helicopter from Exeter to help to treat the casualties.
Eye witnesses recounted seeing "enormous flames" engulf the motorway's northbound carriageway.
One, Ciara Neno, from Weston-super-Mare, said: "It was quite frankly the scariest night of my life and we are extremely lucky to be alive tonight. A black fog came down very, very fast and the Iceland truck in front of us disappeared. We managed to brake and not hit the truck, but the carnage had started and all we heard was 'thump, thump, thump' and we were waiting to be hit and end up under the lorry. I got on to the emergency services and my husband started dragging people from smoking cars. The noise and the smell were horrendous and there was several explosions as the fires took hold."
Music teacher Tom Hamill told how he rescued a baby from the wreckage of one car. Mr Hamill, 25, from Wells, Somerset, had been travelling with his father and girlfriend when they pulled their car into the central reservation after stopping in thick fog just behind the crash.
"You could hear cars either side of you pounding about 60mph into jackknifed lorries and other vehicles," he said. "We clambered out of the car, and a lady who had some children screamed 'take my baby'. So we carried the baby over the central reservation where a bit of bumper hit by a car zoomed over my head. My girlfriend was screaming 'watch out'."
They handed the baby back to the mother and went back to rescue his father, who was trapped in the car with a broken leg, and another man with a shattered ankle. "While that was happening, a lorry caught fire," Mr Hamill said. "The flames suddenly licked up and the whole scene where we were was suddenly on fire."
Police urged drivers to avoid the area if at all possible.
Traffic deaths: Britain's worst road crashes
20 October 2008 Family of six dies in crash on the M6.
7 May 2007 Six people die on the M25 when a rescue truck carrying a minibus collides with a lorry.
10 July 2003 Seven people die when a minibus collides with a car on the M56.
17 November 1993 Crash on the M40 leaves 12 children dead.
13 March 1991 Ten people die in a 51-car pile-up on the M4.
28 October 1987 Lorry collides with stationary traffic on the M61, killing 12 people.
21 October 1985 Coach collides with stationary traffic on the M6, killing 13 people.
27 May 1975 Coach carrying pensioners comes off bridge in North Yorkshire, killing 32 people, in Britain's worst ever road accident.
11 July 1978 In Spain, a tanker containing liquefied propylene crashes into a campsite and explodes. The resulting fireball kills at least 215 people and injures 200 more.