Remembering tragic victims of M40 crash twenty years on
Every parent’s nightmare became heartbreaking reality for the loved ones of 12 schoolchildren and their teacher on a winter’s night exactly 20 years ago today, when disaster struck on the M40.
By now those youngsters – all of them bright and brimming with promise – would have been well set on their careers, many no doubt raising families of their own.
But the lives, hopes and dreams of the 10 girls and two boys – all pupils at Hagley Roman Catholic High School and most of them promising musicians – were cruelly snatched away.
Together with their teacher, Eleanor Fry, they were killed when the minibus bringing them home from an exciting trip to watch the Schools Proms at the Royal Albert Hall in London crashed into a motorway maintenance lorry parked on the hard shoulder of the M40 near Warwick just after midnight.
The vehicle burst into flames after the collision. Only two pupils survived – Holly Caldwell, aged 13, of Bewdley, and Bethan O’Doherty, 12, from Kidderminster who were in the back seats.
Parents of the schoolmates who lost their lives have opened their hearts to talk about their memories of their children, what they dreamed of for their future – and how they have coped since that terrible night.
Caring, clever and strong, 13-year-old brownie pack leader Claire Fitzgerald had her heart set on becoming a lawyer to help disadvantaged young people. But she would never grow up to achieve her ambitions – doomed as she was to become one of the 13 victims of the disaster.
A moving poem by Claire, from Lye Head, near Bewdley, was read to a tearful congregation of hundreds of people during her funeral at St Wulstan’s RC Church in Stourport.
She wrote it in September 1993, just two months before her death – and it was called ‘Happy’.
The time to be happy is NOW
The place to be happy is HERE
The way to be happy is TO MAKE OTHERS SO.
And that was typical of the girl who was so environmentally aware and used to raise money for Children in Need and World Vision.
Her father, Steve Fitzgerald, who moved with her mother, Liz, to live near Lichfield two years ago, said: “She was a very strong young lady, who knew her mind and what she wanted to do.
“She wanted to be a lawyer, working with disadvantaged young people – and I have no doubt that is what she would have done.
“She was very socially and environmentally aware and, even at the age of 10 and 11, she did charity fund-raising.”
Claire, a leader with the 2nd Kidderminster Our Lady’s Brownie Pack, was also a talented clarinet player, working towards Grade 5.
“The 20th anniversary is an opportunity for others, in a sense, to join in remembering and the school is organising a private mass, which we will go to,” said Mr Fitzgerald, aged 66, a corporate advisor for Prince Charles’s Business in the Community programme. Mr and Mrs Fitzgerald, in the wake of the tragedy, set up the Bishops Wood Group to give the bereaved
Hagley RC High School families and friends the chance to meet at a nearby nature reserve.
A police officer looks at floral tributes on a motorway bridge after the smash
Their experiences – including helping Claire’s sister Sarah, who was eight at the time of the disaster, through her grief – also led to them setting up the Brambles Trust in 1999 to offer support for children who were suffering after bereavement. The trust closed in 2005 when funding ‘dried up’.
‘Tomboy’ Louise Gunn – ace hockey, squash, tennis and netball player – would definitely have worked in sport, say her parents. “And she’d have been a sports teacher – and married to a rugby player,” adds her younger sister, Susie.
Her parents, Andy and Winnie Gunn, and sister Susie, now aged 30 and married to Paul Maybury, have gradually pieced their lives back together since the tragedy. But Mrs Gunn, aged 58, a theatre sister at Kidderminster Hospital, said: “It’s with you every day.
“You see someone the same age as Louise, grown up and with a family, and it’s like a wound that doesn’t heal properly and every time it’s pushed it’s open again. It’s all ‘what ifs’ and ‘might have beens’ – every day.”
Mr Gunn, aged 60, a contracting electrician, speaking at the family home in Aspen Walk, Stourport, said they probably would not attend the private memorial service to the victims of the M40 crash to be held at Hagley RC High School today.
But he and his wife would – as they always do on the anniversary and at Christmas – visit Louise’s grave at Stourport cemetery, where the remains of her schoolfriend, Claire Fitzgerald, also lie. “We just want to remember Louise with the family” he said.
“You never forget what’s happened – but your life moves on. A photograph of Louise normally hangs above the TV in the lounge, although we recently had to take it down to redecorate.
“We don’t have black days so much now – but we do have ‘Louise moments’, where it creeps up on us. I heard Lady Mountbatten on the radio saying ‘respect your tears’ – and I know exactly what that means, because they are tears of love.”
He recalled that Louise was a ‘very easy child’ who would listen to advice. She played in goal for Stourport Ladies Hockey 2nd team, despite being so young, was runner up in county squash, played netball for the school and won a tennis tournament locally.
She also enjoyed playing the violin – but sport was her ‘number one’.
“She was a model child – brilliant – and always did her homework straight away after coming home from school,” said her dad.
“I’m sure she would have gone to Loughborough University, which specialises in sport, and had a job in sport.”
Mr Gunn also spoke of how he and his wife decided from the start, after the tragedy, to be very honest with Susie about what had happened.
“Because you are so wrapped up in your own grief, sometimes you don’t realise the different stages when other people are grieving,” he said.
“Susie had a couple of problems but the people who helped most were Acorns Hospice, who were used to dealing with the siblings of terminally ill children – and they said we were doing all the right things, like being honest with her.”
Caroline and Tony Mislolek, with a photograph of their duaghter Nicole, who died on her 13th birthday in the M40 crash
‘Vibrant’ Nicola Misiolek had been excited about going to the Royal Albert Hall to watch the Schools Proms for her 13th birthday. But her outing turned to horror as she became one of the 13 victims of the crash. She was an animal lover and vegetarian – who had talked of becoming either a vet or an archaeologist.
Her father, Tony Misiolek, said at the family’s home in Harrison Road, Wordsley: “We are not over it by any means.”
He described Nicola as ‘vibrant’ and bright, with an exuding personality, which led to her classmates at her primary school – St Joseph’s in Stourbridge – electing her as head girl.
“She was a vegetarian – wouldn’t even eat the yolk of an egg,” said Mr Misiolek, now aged 62, a quality inspection engineer. “We had a Staffordshire bull terrier called Bruno, who died 10 years ago – she loved animals and wanted to be a vet.” Nicola was a member of the Brierley Hill 1st Guides and enjoyed playing the keyboard and visiting West End shows.
Nicola’s sister, Louise Grace, now married and aged 37 with a 21-month-old son, Ethan, was badly affected by the tragedy and her parents say she became ‘introvert’ after it.
“It has scarred her,” said Mrs Misiolek, who used to be in the chorus for pantomimes produced by St Joseph’s Primary School. Since the disaster, Mr and Mrs Misiolek have left flowers at the graves of all of the pupils killed with their daughter every year, near to the anniversary.
They plan to be at a private mass organised at the school today for the 20th anniversary.