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"I will never forget" - remembering the Clapham rail disaster 25 years on
TWENTY-five years ago this morning, 35 people lost their lives in one of the worst rail disasters of modern times.
A London-bound commuter train, travelling from Bournemouth, crashed into the back of another service near Clapham Junction.
Twenty-two of the people killed were from Dorset and the New Forest.
Today, a simple ceremony at 8.13am – the time of the collision – was due to remember them.
There were 460 people aboard the Bournemouth to Waterloo that morning when it ploughed into the stationary train from Basingstoke.
Moments later, an empty train heading away from London crashed into the wreckage.
Amidst the chaos, the walking wounded were able to tell some of the story.
Engineer Chris Reeves, 38, who had been in the buffet car of the Bournemouth train, told reporters: “We were doing 60-70mph when there was this almighty explosion.
“When the crash happened we were thrown down the train. All I can remember is dust and debris as you’ve never experienced it in your life.”
It was immediately clear there had been major loss of life.
The driver of the Bournemouth train, John Rolls, had not stood a chance.
John had wanted to be a train driver since he was a boy waving to the drivers at the end of his garden near Wool.
He joined the railways at 15, becoming a driver in 1964.
British Rail area manager John Curley said: “He was one of the best drivers we have had in Bournemouth and was a very highly skilled tradesman.”
Stephen Loader, 34, was on the way to his job as a personnel manager at Global Bank. He had two children, aged three and six.
Bournemouth train driver John Rolls with wife Susan
His father Charlie told the Echo then: “He was a go-ahead whizz kid. He was one of the best sons you could ever have.”
Keen sailor Alison Macgregor, 23, was the only daughter of a Wimborne couple. Her mum Muriel said then: “She was a very gregarious girl and had masses of friends.”
Alison had moved to London three years previously and was travelling back from Southampton after a sailing weekend with her boyfriend. A charity named in her memory has since given 80,000 disabled people the chance to sail on Southampton Water.
Michael Newman, from Canford Cliffs, was a designer for the West End productions of Cats and Phantom of the Opera. Impresario Harold Fielding said: “Michael was the king of front of house design. He designed just about all the front sets in the West End now.”
Bill Webb, a 39-year-old accountant, died on an operating table after the accident. He had been on his way to new job in the City.
His wife went ahead with a ninth birthday party for his daughter Katherine only hours after his death.
Young police constable Ian Moore visited Clapham two days after the crash to lay a wreath near the spot where his 28-year-old wife Alison was killed. A card attached said simply “I love you”.
Seven weeks after the tragedy, a memorial service at Winchester Cathedral was attended by the Duchess of York, as well as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and opposition leader Neil Kinnock. Bournemouth East MP David Atkinson, British Rail chairman Robert Reid and Bournemouth mayor Cllr Jacky Harris were among those paying their respects.
The Duchess of York arrives for the memorial service
The Bishop of Winchester told the congregation: “We mourn the loss of men and women cut off in the prime of their lives.”
An inquiry promised by Mrs Thatcher was soon underway.
In June, in the inquiry, Sir Anthony Hidden, announced that John Rolls was blameless. It said he was driving “in an exemplary manner”.
The full report in November said the direct cause of the accident was faulty wiring by signals technician Brian Hemingway. His mistakes had allowed a signal to remain at green when the Basingstoke train had stopped just beyond it.
But it said Mr Hemingway’s “uncharacteristic” errors were because his judgement had been blunted by a “totally unacceptable” level of overtime. He had been working seven days a week for 13 weeks.
The report made 93 safety recommendations and the government pledged to implement them.
Lee Middleton, then a 39-year-old father of two, had caught the train at Brockenhurst that morning.
He still remembers people being thrown around the carriage “like rag dolls”. He was visited in hospital in London by Mrs Thatcher, before being moved to Southampton General in time for Christmas.
“I am lucky to be alive, it was that close,” he says.
He needed a bone graft and had nine months off work.
“It had made me realise how precious life is,” says Lee, who now lives in Winchester.
“One minute you are here, the next you are not.
“My body has healed but I will never forget.
“Every year is always quiet reflection day for me. I always say a prayer and light a candle for the other commuters that day and to the families of all those who lost their lives.”
Sunday December 11
7.27pm: A Weymouth-bound express hits a concrete mixer left by vandals on the line near Parkstone station. It takes 12 hours to clear the line.
Monday December 1
6.30am: Passengers who usually catch the 6.14am Poole to London train have to get on at Bournemouth because of the previous night’s disruption. Mark I carriages have to be used instead of the newer, safer Mark III.
8.09am: The driver of the 7.18am Basingstoke to Watereloo train notices a signal near Clapham Junction change suddenly from green to red. He stops to call the signal box from the trackside.
8.13am: The Bournemouth train ploughs into the back of the Basingstoke train at around 50mph.
Former Mayor remembers grieving relatives
JACKY Harris was the Mayor of Bournemouth when the Clapham rail disaster occurred and immediately made it her priority to help in whatever way she could.
In the months that followed, she visited victims in hospital, sat with grieving relatives and went to several different church services, including one at Winchester Cathedral attended by the Duchess of York and Margaret Thatcher.
“It was all so very sad,” she said. “I met all these people who were involved or affected in different ways and I decided I was going to have them all to the Mayor’s Parlour in the New Year.
“We held a reception in the Parlour and I think that was very much appreciated. I think people felt we really did care.”
She recalls the Clapham rail disaster coming just after she had launched an appeal for Armenian refugees following an earthquake there and just before the Lockerbie disaster.
“I more or less said to my secretary this had to have priority,” she said. “You just don’t anticipate something like this happening on your own doorstep, it was one of those unbelievable moments.
“The Clapham disaster figures heavily in my memories of the Mayoralty. I just hope that what I did helped because that’s what was needed at the time – help.
“It was a terrible situation for a lot of people and I just thought I must do whatever I can here to show that the town of Bournemouth is really sad about this and wants to help.”
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