A teenage girl who watched her best friend die in a sledging accident said yesterday that she had decided at the last minute not to join her on the fatal ride.
Witnesses to the crash that killed Francesca Anobile, 16, and injured four other girls said they could have been travelling at up to 50mph when the Land-Rover roof they were riding on careered out of control in Rother Valley Country Park near Rotherham, South Yorkshire, on Tuesday.
The makeshift sledge had travelled more than 300m across snow-covered fields when it smashed through a wire sheep fence, sending one girl flying into the air before eventually coming to rest against a wooden boundary 100m further down the hill.
In an emotional statement released through the police, Francesca's parents, from Mosborough, Sheffield, paid tribute to their talented daughter who got 15 As at GCSE and was planning to go to Oxford or Cambridge after finishing her A-levels. "We are devastated by the loss of Francesca, who was a beautiful, witty, intelligent and popular young woman with everything to live for," it read. "She was set for an outstanding academic career and had an unbelievable work ethic."
Floral tributes were laid at the scene of the incident yesterday as friends and passers-by remembered the sporty all-rounder who had been in the middle of her Duke of Edinburgh gold award.
Francesca's best friend, Laura Simpson, said that they had been "inseparable", but that she had decided at the last minute not to get on to the sledge.
"I was the only one who didn't get on. I had to watch it all. I watched them come down. I just decided not to get on. I don't even know why. I got to the top and decided not to get on," she said.
Julian McKay, who also witnessed the tragedy, said: "All of a sudden, at a tremendous speed, came this roof with the girls on it. It must have been [travelling at] maybe 50mph. It was so fast they couldn't jump from it.
"I hoped the fence would stop them but they just went straight through it. One of the girls was catapulted from it and [the sledge] went straight down to the fence at the bottom. We looked on and just hoped that they were going to get up, but no one did."
Francesca was airlifted to the Northern General Hospital in Sheffield, where she later died of her injuries. Two other girls who had been riding on the roof remained in hospital in Rotherham yesterday, one suffering from leg and head injuries. The condition of the third girl, Nikki Burns, who was being treated at Sheffield's Royal Hallamshire hospital, was not known.
A Health and Safety Executive investigation was under way yesterday, supported by South Yorkshire Police. Rotherham council said the girls must have climbed over a padlocked gate to gain access to the slope, which is now used to graze cattle. A council spokesman said it was not intended for sledging, despite dozens of families and groups playing on it after heavy overnight snow. Police later warned sledgers to keep away from the site.