Selby driver 'told police he was not asleep at wheel'

Ian Herbert,North
Thursday 06 December 2001 01:00

Gary Hart, the motorist accused of causing the deaths of 10 people in the Selby rail disaster, insisted to police that he had not fallen asleep before his Land Rover plunged towards the east coast main line, a court was told.

He knew the warning signs of dozing at the wheel, would have pulled over if he had felt tired and was not preoccupied with thoughts of his new girlfriend, with whom he had had a five-hour telephone conversation the night before.

On the fifth day of Mr Hart's trial, the jury at Leeds Crown Court were given extracts of an interview he had had with police officers after the crash on 28 February.

Asked if he had fallen asleep, Mr Hart replied: "No, I wasn't asleep." He was then asked if he had been dozing. "I was alive, I was fully aware of what was happening," he said. "Something happened to the Land Rover and I want you to tell me what it was."

Mr Hart told officers he had not given much thought to the amount of sleep he had had the night before the accident. "I was not asleep ... I'm telling you I wasn't asleep," he said. "I know the symptoms ... When I get tired I pull over. I wasn't tired. I would have pulled over if I was tired."

The jury of seven women and five men has been told Mr Hart set off on a 145-mile journey from his home in Strubby, Lincolnshire, to work at Wigan, Lancashire, on no sleep after chatting to 40-year-old Kristeen Panter, a woman he had met though an internet dating agency. His telephone bills show he had an open line to the internet until half an hour before leaving home, at about 4.40am on February 28.

Mr Hart said he was thinking about Mrs Panter and a first meeting with her that they had planned for that evening, but he told officers: "She wasn't playing on my mind. I was aware of everything that was going on around me."

Mr Hart said he had "nothing to hide" and said his lifestyle "dictates I can go 36 hours no problem".

His L-registered Land Rover Defender and trailer left the M62 near the North Yorkshire village of Great Heck and plunged down the embankment. Moments later the trailer was hit by a southbound GNER express train travelling at 117mph, which then collided with a train carrying 1,600 tons of coal. Ten men – six commuters and four railway staff – were killed. Mr Hart, 37, denies 10 counts of causing death by dangerous driving.

He told police he was besotted with Mrs Panter and "had not felt so alive in years" after chatting with her. He was separated from his 38-year-old wife, Elaine, at the time of the disaster and said of the phone call: "I have never spoken to anyone like that in my life that made me feel like that."

In later police interviews Mr Hart said he was "in shock" when he had said on the day of the crash that he had had between two and a half and three hours' sleep the evening before. "I have told the truth all the way through," he said in the interview. Then Detective Constable Alan Wilson asked him: "You haven't told the truth all the way through because you lied about having had sleep." He replied: "I was in shock at that point."

After Mrs Panter spoke to police Mr Hart admitted his lack of sleep, attributing it to the fact he was "buzzing with excitement".

He had also initially said he was not in a hurry on the morning of the crash. But a recreation of his journey – in which a police vehicle pulling a trailer was escorted, allowing it to cross white lines and break speed limits – showed he covered 63 miles in 70 minutes.

The trial continues today.

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