Fatal 1993 Hagley school bus crash safety changes 'not enough'

Image caption Ten children were killed in the crash on the M40 shortly before midnight on 18 November 1993 and two other pupils later died in hospital

Twenty years ago, two minibuses carrying pupils from Hagley Roman Catholic High School left for a concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London. However, only one bus returned - the other crashed en route on the M40, killing 12 children and a teacher who were on board.

Some of the victims' families believe more should have been done since to improve coach safety.

The most significant finding at the inquest into the deaths of the 12 children was that the minibus was not fitted with seatbelts.

It prompted a change in road safety laws in 1997 which made it compulsory for minibuses and coaches to have passenger seatbelts.

The type of vehicle the school, and others, had used - known as a "crew bus" - was also outlawed. These had featured two benches facing each other as opposed to rows of seating facing forwards.

However, some families do not think the changes go far enough.

Liz and Steve Fitzgerald, whose daughter Claire died in the crash, said in a joint statement: "Perhaps for too long, we have stood back quietly, hoping that whilst we continue to grieve, decision makers will do the right thing.

"However, 20 years is long enough to give those decision makers time to get it right."

Image caption Paul Hill said the 12 children who died were some of "the nicest" he had met

They said there was a "two-tier system" in which schools do not have to follow the same safety procedures as commercial companies.

This, they claim, includes school minibuses being allowed to pull a trailer behind the rear emergency doors, not having safety checks every four to eight weeks like commercial operators and not having regular health checks for drivers.

Justine Clark, whose daughter Ruth died in the crash, said: "I must be honest, I think that [the crash] was the catalyst for what we have today. I don't want anyone to endure what happened to us.

"I think it is very important that regular health and safety checks should be carried out. We mustn't become complacent."

The Department for Education said it was up to individual schools to ensure driver training for teachers was appropriate.

The National Union of Teachers said teachers should only agree to drive a minibus if they had received proper training and recommended refresher training every four years.

The coach was being driven by a 35-year-old teacher, Eleanor Fry.

Paul Hill, head teacher of the school at the time, said she had worked a long day and the "devastating" tragedy would never leave his memory.

"My wife Margaret and I drove to the school after getting a phone call shortly after midnight," he said.

"The police told me there had been fatalities and I could tell the parents but I was not to state the number that had died."

He said it was only when he arrived at Warwick Hospital in the early hours that he realised the "situation was much worse" than first feared.

At that point, 10 children aged 12 and 13 - along with Ms Fry - had died.

Another two 12-year-old girls - Charlene O'Dowd and Katie Murray - died later that night. Only two pupils in the minibus survived the crash.

'Still too raw'

Mr Hill, who lives in Bewdley and retired in 2000, said: "The parents at the hospital were completely destroyed.

"One father said his daughter had changed on to the coach that crashed when the party had stopped at a service station on the way home.

"Amidst all this I was trying to think 'what does one do?' My mind was in complete turmoil."

A press conference was held in the school hall on the morning of 19 November when he confirmed 13 people had died and just two passengers - Bethan O'Doherty and Holly Caldwell - had survived.

"I was not in complete control and very close to tears. It was just awful," he said.

"I remember saying they were 12 of the nicest children one could ever wish to meet, they made up the core of the school orchestra and the entire girls netball team died that night."

The crash affected more than just the school and the village of Hagley - a large portion of pupils lived in the nearby towns of Stourport-on-Severn and Bewdley, as well as Halesowen and Stourbridge in the West Midlands.

"I don't know anyone who wasn't deeply shocked," said Mr Hill, who plans to attend a private memorial service at the school on the anniversary of the crash.

"I couldn't attend all the funerals either because some were held on the same day.

"After that it seemed to be months before you heard children laughing again on the playground. It felt almost a crime or a sin and it was almost a relief when they did."

Image caption Head teacher Paul Hill described Eleanor Fry as a "totally committed" teacher who loved music, the school and the church
Image caption The school in Hagley holds a private memorial service on the anniversary of the crash each year

Alec Mackie, the county council's press officer at the time, said he "vividly remembers" the aftermath of the crash.

"Sadly the parents of the children who had gone to the concert were all waiting in their cars at the school," he said.

"One parent had tuned in and heard the report, knowing full well his children were on a coach on the M40.

"A lump comes to my throat even now. I remember sticking individual pictures of all these beautiful smiling children on a large piece of white flip board paper to show the media."

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