‘We wanted the night to carry on forever’ Dad’s pain 30 years on from …
One of the worst tragedies on the British road network will today (November 18) be remembered far and wide. It's exactly 30 years since 13 people, 12 children and one adult, died in a minibus crash on the M40 in Warwickshire.
For Steve and Liz Fitzgerald, whose 13-year-old daughter Claire was among those who never returned home from a Hagley High School trip to London, today is a day like any other. "To be blunt, everyday is the same," Steve told CoventryLive.
"The anniversary is what other people focus on. It's actually for us just another day without Claire. The fact that other people talk about is what raises it in the minds of other people.
"It's in our mind all the time. That sounds cruel, and it's not meant to be. But no day is different to any other."
So much has happened in 30 years, not least in respect of road safety legislation. Seatbelts are now compulsory in minibuses and coaches and the crew bus, on which two opposing benches faced towards each other, was outlawed. Both as a direct result of the tragedy.
But some things remain the same for Steve and Liz. "You never get over losing a child," Steve added. "And you never get over the damage to your other children either. It's a matter of accommodation. It's just how you get on with life afterwards."(Image: Mirrorpix)
Only two of the 15 people on board the minibus, driven by teacher Eleanor Fry, survived its collision with a maintenance lorry on the hard shoulder near to Junction 15 for Warwick. Whatever life has thrown at Steve and Liz, who now live in Shenstone, Staffordshire, their traumatic recollection of that fateful night will never fade.
"I remember it like it was yesterday," Steve added. "I was due to be in London the next day so Liz had gone to collect Claire from her trip that night. She was sitting in the car park at 1am and I was in bed fast asleep.
"Liz was called into the school. She phoned me from the school not knowing what had gone on, but suspecting something serious was wrong and asked me to bring one of the other parents in, which I did.
"We were taken to Warwick Hospital and went through a whole series of discussions about identification. Then one of the priests came over to us and said very kindly 'I'm sorry to tell you Claire is not one of those who survived'.
"It was very kindly put, but it still didn't tell us anything we wanted to hear." Devastated and broken, they drove to where they used to live in Bewdley as daylight emerged and inadvertently passed the crash scene.
"Nobody really warned us the main route was over the top of the accident site," Steve said. "So we drove past all the emergency vehicles and the flashing lights as the dawn was breaking.
"The dawn breaking was something we didn't want to see. We just wanted the night to carry on forever. We finally got home and it all began."
The couple launched the Brambles Trust, a bereavement service for young children affected by the M40 tragedy. It went on to help hundreds of other families and children suffering with grief and the loss of a loved one.
When the charity closed in 2006, Steve and Liz's attention turned more to the circumstances of the crash and why it happened. They are now calling for all schools, and not just profit-making private schools, to be subject to the same road safety law.
A law that would require all school minibus operators to have an operator’s licence and put an end to exemptions that allow teachers to drive school and college minibuses without formal qualifications.
"We want to put in place professional fleet management, which is the O (operator) licence, a transport manager and professional drivers in schools across the board," Steve said. "Whatever the funding of the school.
"We don't want a two-tier system where the well off are looked after and the less well off are not so well looked after. We think that's outrageous quite frankly.
"Essentially what you've got is a system that encourages schools to have drivers who can drive minibuses on ordinary car licences with no extra training. We believe that is unsafe."
Leading teaching union NASUWT is backing the couple's call to action, the details of which were announced during a briefing at the Memorial to Road Traffic Victims in Hartshill Hayes Country Park, near Atherstone, on Thursday.
- ^ Warwickshire (www.coventrytelegraph.net)
- ^ Woman suffers life-changing injuries in 'serious' M&S car park incident (www.coventrytelegraph.net)
- ^ Warwick (www.coventrytelegraph.net)
- ^ Leading teaching union NASUWT is backing the couple's call to action (www.coventrytelegraph.net)
- ^ Atherstone (www.coventrytelegraph.net)
- ^ here. (data.reachplc.com)