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The M40 Crash: Day trip to disaster for 11 young musicians: Steve Boggan outlines the events leading to the accident which killed 11 pupils and a teacher after an outing to London

THE CHILDREN of Hagley Roman Catholic High School were in high spirits when they left their lessons behind on Wednesday afternoon and headed for London to see the country's finest young musicians at the Royal Albert Hall.

Hagley's own musicians had performed for Pope John Paul II in Rome and for pilgrims at Lourdes but their teacher, Eleanor Fry, 35, wanted them to see the Schools Proms. She told the excited teenagers that she wanted them to emulate the orchestras at the three-day event.

Miss Fry, who normally taught mathematics and music, was a well- liked, enthusiastic teacher with a love for music. She had often driven the school minibus on trips at home and abroad and was a competent and experienced driver, according to David Stanley, the education officer for Hereford and Worcester. The eight-year-old bus she was driving passed its MoT test only two weeks ago.

Dr Bernard Tedd, 35, a physics teacher, was driving a second minibus, making the total on the trip 28. He said they arrived at the proms at 6.15pm and settled down to enjoy a three-hour performance.

Afterwards, the two satisfied parties took on petrol, searched in vain for fish and chips and, after a final toilet stop in north London, headed home and became separated.

It was the last time Dr Tedd saw the 11 victims of the minibus crash, though, after making his agonising decision to drive on when he saw a vehicle ablaze near Junction 15 of the M40, he said he had a feeling of dread that it was theirs.

Police and fire brigade officials confirmed yesterday that he could have done nothing. Malcolm Tandy, a Warwickshire Fire Brigade public relations officer who was at the scene, said: 'Some people had already pulled seven children clear, but three were dead. The emergency services had arrived, so stopping would have been useless.

'Dr Tedd saved those children from witnessing the worst accident any of us has ever seen. I have to gather video evidence of accidents all the time. I had never seen anything like that.'

The minibus had ploughed into the back of a stationary motorway maintenance 'block vehicle', a 12.5-ton Bedford lorry fitted with a crash cushion made of honeycombed aluminium. Its driver, who has not been named, had stopped on the hard shoulder and was telephoning the police to tell them his crew of nine was moving on to another section.

According to David Lynn, head of engineering services in Warwickshire, the driver was following normal procedure and witnesses had confirmed that the vehicle's safety lights were flashing.

Emergency workers at the scene were quick to notice that a large arrow on the back of the block vehicle was pointing to the left, something which they initially felt may have confused Miss Fry, but Warwickshire County Council officials later said the arrow was obscured at the time of impact by the crash cushion.

'When the block vehicle is protecting workers on the motorway, the cushion is down,' said a spokeswoman. 'When it is not working, it is in the up position and covers the arrow. It must have been up and was probably destroyed in the ensuing blaze. If it had been down, it would have softened the impact for the Transit van, too.'

First on the scene was Patrick Molloy, a motorist from Liverpool. He said he tried to get someone out of the passenger seat but the door was jammed, so he ran to open the rear doors.

'I realised there were loads of people all on top of each other,' he said. 'I jumped into the van and started pulling them out. Everyone was unconscious. While I was doing this, another man started helping me and we noticed that there were flames spreading. Within seconds they were getting bigger.

'We managed to get about seven people out but this other man said 'Get out, the van is going to blow'. The tyres were exploding and the petrol tank was fizzling. There was thick black smoke everywhere. We did the best we could.'

Red Watch from Leamington Spa fire station attended in three fire engines but there was nothing they could do save put out the blaze and cut off the van's roof to remove the charred bodies.

Mr Tandy said: 'It is always difficult attending the scene of road traffic accidents but this was particularly traumatic, particularly because of the age of the children.' He said the firefighters involved had been told post traumatic stress counselling was available for all those who needed it.

Bob Martin, one of the first ambulance officers on the scene, said the minibus was 'an inferno' with flames shooting about 30 feet into the air. 'I have never seen anything like it before in my life,' he said. 'There were seven people laid out at the side of the road and others were standing around crying. It was awful.'

Yesterday, the police named those killed in the crash as James Hickman, 12, Ruth Clark, 12, Nicola Misiolek, 12, Fiona Cook, 12, Richard Pagett, 12, Clare Fitzgerald, 13, Adele Howell, 12, Anna Mansell, 14, Charlotte Bligh, 13, and Louise Gunn, 12. The eleventh victim, Charlene O'Dowd, 12, died in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham, last night.

The three surviving children were Polly Caldwell and Bethan O'Doherty, who were described as 'stable', and Katie Murray, who was described as 'critical'. All three are in South Warwickshire hospital, Warwick.

(Photograph omitted)