Sun shines on 'a celebration' of crash children

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FATHER Gerry Breen smiled warmly and began reading a poem written by Claire Fitzgerald two months before her death in last week's minibus crash on the M40. 'The time to be happy is now, the place to be happy is here, the way to be happy is to make others so.'

Claire, 13, died with 11 schoolfriends and their teacher early last Friday morning, when the minibus in which they were travelling home from a concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London crashed into a stationary maintenance lorry. It was the worst single-vehicle toll in a British motorway crash.

As the hearse carrying Claire's coffin glided into St Wulstan's Roman Catholic church in Stourport-on-Severn yesterday, hundreds of mourners, many of them children, drifted across the wet church lawn. They stood silently in the early-morning sun and stared at the yellow rose-topped coffin. Father Breen embraced Claire's parents, Liz and Steve, and her eight-year-old sister, Sarah.

Inside the church, he welcomed the parents of some of the other crash victims. 'This is also a celebration for your children. We gather in great sadness, united in grief, but also in love and hope. At the front of Claire's coffin stands the Easter candle, a light that burns when the world seems lost and helpless. That light in the darkness of today shines for Claire.'

Last week, he continued, the nation had woken up to 'terrible news about our children - a parent's worst nightmare. This morning our papers and television screens carry the faces of other children, and we pray for them'.

Pupils and staff from Hagley High School, which all the victims attended, joined friends, relatives and members of the emergency services for the requiem Mass. Another 150 mourners gathered in a hall next door and watched the service on a monitor, their gazes interrupted only by tears. On the pavements, passers-by stopped to hear the service relayed by public-address system. They heard Fr Breen describe Claire as a 'simply and profoundly ordinary girl' with a strong 'influence beyond the family' through her poems and work with the Guides and for the Children in Need appeal.

He said: 'In our world of achievement and selfishness, we as adults have become preoccupied with original sin and easily forget original innocence, which Claire and her friends displayed in their lives. They speak to us today, reminding us of the childlike qualities we have within us, so that we may share them tomorrow and look forward to a brighter future.'

(Photograph omitted)