I normally aim to write in an amusing manner. A satirical and comical take on the world around me. But today is different. I feel compelled to write about this very sad day.
Twenty years ago today, aged twelve, I got up and got ready for school like usual. It was a Thursday. I had my breakfast and sat watching The Big Breakfast tv show as I always did.
The phone rang, I answered, it was one of my Aunts asking if I was ok. I told her I was. She explained that there had been a school bus crash from my school. She wanted to check that I was ok. I assured her I was fine. My school, Hagley RC High, was ten miles away and was so popular that it attracted pupils from all over. Most pupils would catch local buses that would be hired for journeys to and from school. So my immediate thought was that it was one of those buses. A 30-40mph crash on an A road.
I was on the phone to my Aunt when the very brief Big Breakfast news came on at 7.30. I missed it. I therefore didn’t get to see the crash she was referring to.
When I caught the school bus, which was already almost full, there was a silence amongst all the pupils. It was eery. I then realised that it was much more than a bus crash on the way to school.
I sat by some friends and they were also sat in solemn silence. I asked about what had happened and they told me that there had been a crash on the motorway with one of our school minibuses in the night returning from the Royal Albert Hall in London. It was carrying children in our year. Children in our classes. I remember asking, “Is it bad?” “Yes it’s bad,” was the reply. It was a long journey to school that morning. Everyone not knowing what to say. I vividly remember an older pupil suddenly had an emotional outburst. Everyone else remained silent. This bus, full of children who normally wouldn’t associate with anyone in a different age group, who would normally be a rowdy bunch, suddenly conveyed an overwhelming shared sadness in silence.
When we arrived at school, along the pavement at the front were newspaper photographers and journalists. It was another indication to me of how bad this was.
We were all led into the school hall. Many pupils crying, many being consoled by their friends. Many tearful faces who would be seen in the next day’s newspapers. The hall remained quiet and then Mr Hill, the Headmaster, stood in front of us all and spoke to us about this most tragic day in the schools history. I don’t remember the detail of what he said. I remember we prayed. Looking back, I feel an utmost respect for that man who on this terrible day had to console colleagues, students, parents, speak to press and address the entire school whilst keeping it together. Nothing in his career could have prepared him for that.
After praying we all went to our forms where we would normally have morning registration. There would be no lessons today, understandably. As we sat in our forms, it still hadn’t quite hit me what had happened. Then my friends started to talk to me and tell me what had happened and the seriousness of the accident.
One of our minibuses had collided into the back of a maintenance truck on the hard shoulder of the M40 motorway. It had exploded into flames with most of the passengers still inside. Three had been taken to hospital. A number of them who had lost their lives should have been sat in that class room with us at that moment. I was told some of the names and I remember feeling sick in my stomach. My legs crumpled and I wanted to curl up into a ball. The other school minibus had to drive past the collision to get the occupants away from the horrific scene. Meanwhile, parents patiently waited at the school to collect their children not knowing their lives had so tragically changed.
My Dad came to collect me in the afternoon. He left the newspaper at work because of the photographs. He knew it would upset me to see those images. It wasn’t until I got home that I really started to feel it. I couldn’t stop crying and against my Dad’s recommendations I watched the news.
Thirteen lives were lost including Miss Fry, the music teacher who was driving. She was my music teacher at the time and I vividly remember her asking the music class I was in, if any of us wanted to go to the Royal Albert Hall with them.
Two survived thanks to the brave actions of some other drivers who pulled some of the children from the wreckage before it went up in flames. They had the difficulty of having to relive the events and give evidence at the inquest a year later. I can’t imagine how hard that must have been for all involved.
The school was in a state of mourning for a long time.
A memorial garden was eventually created to remember our lost friends and teacher. The school also had a large stained glass window donated for them. We were also donated two new minibuses with forward facing seats and this tragedy eventually led to new legislation about minibuses, forward facing seats and seat belts.
I knew all of those who lost their lives although some I knew better than others because we shared classes together.
The sadness never really goes away but time has the ability to shroud such events from your memory. You shut it away and just crack on; continue with your own life; following your own path. Year on year, I would remember but I would try not to think too much about it. I wouldn’t want to dwell on such a sad event. I’m not sure if that’s a bad thing. I guess it’s just moving on. I know that what I felt was only a fraction of what the parents felt.
Then we reach today, marking twenty years since that event and it suddenly feels so poignant and it has stirred up a lot of emotion for me. Yes, there’s the recollection of the day. It seems like yesterday. But also because twenty years on I look at myself and I also see school friends who are on Facebook, married with children and good careers and I can’t help think of the path that the friends we lost, so intelligent, so gifted and with so much potential should have also taken. I can’t help but wonder what they could have become. It’s something I was unable to consider at such a young age and now at 32 I have only just pondered. It hits home when I look at their photos on the news websites. I no longer see people my own age. I’m now looking at them as an adult. I see the children in those photos and can recognise even more the tragedy.
I guess this has led me to think deeply about the time we have here on this planet. In an instant it can be taken. It is therefore so delicate and precious. It goes without saying that we should hold onto the ones we love with both hands. Partners, family and friends. Show them how much they are loved and be extremely grateful to have an enriched life because of them.
We must also be grateful for the opportunity we have to do something productive and positive with our lives. We all have potential. Let’s not waste it.
My thoughts, prayers and heartfelt best wishes to all of those who were affected by that day.
May those we have lost rest in peace.