Monday, April 27, 2020

The Sowerby Bridge Disasters

There are few areas in the world that suffer more than one headline hitting tragedy but the small town of Sowerby Bridge in West Yorkshire is one of these places. In 86 years two incidents occurred that would cost the lives of eleven people at almost the exact spot with the involvement of two different vehicles.

At 0550 on 15th October 1907 a tram was going by its normal route on the hill of Bolton Brow when the current suddenly cut out causing the vehicle to suddenly stop. With no electricity to keep the tram going it began moving backwards down the hill and due to the steep inclination it quickly gathered speed.

With the curves in the road and the speed that it was going, there was no way it could take the bends and the tram flew off its tracks and smashed into the nearby shop fronts, sending debris and people in every direction. The tram came to rest on its side, the carnage waking the surrounding residents who rushed out to help.

Four people died at the scene and another died later, over two dozen were injured. One of those lost was the conductor who stuck to his post till the end and prevented passengers leaping from the runaway tram and into a certain death.

On 25th October an inquest returned a verdict of accidental death on the victims and the town, over time, got back to normal. Never thinking that there would be a second disaster years later.

Fast forward to 6th September 1993 on the exact same road. A lorry owned by Fewston Transport of Skipton was making a journey through the town when suddenly the brakes failed and it started to speed down the hill out of control.

Within seconds the lorry careered out of the road and slammed into a British Telecom van and a row of shops, finally stopping with the cab embedded into the front of a newsagent/Post Office which moments ago had been crowded with children.

The driver and five others died in the disaster, when the lorry was examined it was found that the brakes were faulty and that the lorries had to travel through Sowerby Bridge for them to reach the M62. Residents had been calling for a by-pass for years without luck.

The owners of the truck were later fined £5000 by Halifax Magistrates, a small price to pay for so much devastation.

Today the area is back to being a road, a memorial garden to the victims of the truck crash stands at the site of a house that was destroyed.

With these two disasters, although over 80 years apart, shows that lightening can strike twice despite the lessons learned from the original incidents.

I would like to add both of these tragedies to a book on Britain's Forgotten Disasters to make sure that the people who died that day are always remembered. If anyone can help then email and hopefully the 11 people who died in these two crashes can have their voices heard.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

School Minibus Disaster - Death on the M40

The night of 17th November 1993 was one that excited the children of Hagley Roman Catholic High School as they attended a school trip over to the Royal Albert Hall in London where they had spent the evening enjoying a concert of young musicians.

When it was time to make the journey back to Hagley, near Birmingham, it was destined to be a long and tiring drive and many of the 14 children would sleep on the way while their teacher Eleanor Fry would drive them, while a second minibus carrying another group from the same school followed behind.

Just after midnight the bus was travelling down the M40 motorway near junction 15 when suddenly the vehicle, travelling over the speed limit, struck a motorway maintenance truck parked up on the hard shoulder and exploded.

The resulting fire completely destroyed the bus and damaged the truck, cars screeched to a halt and ran out to help rescue those trapped in the wreckage. Out of the 14 children and one teacher on board, only two of the children survived. The occupants of the maintenance truck escaped with minor injuries.

An investigation showed that the driver most likely fell asleep at the wheel just before the crash and at the time it was not laid down by law to have seat belts fitted within minibus passenger seats. This all changed after this disaster, one that is still commemorated at the school where the victims came from, a stained glass window and a memorial garden commemorating the 13 victims of one of Britain's saddest road accidents.

What made it worse was the backlash against the media who used photographs of two grieving girls on their front pages as well as the BBC News pushing the story to be broadcast further into their bulletin rather than the top headline it so deserved.

A campaign called Belt Up School Kids (BUSK) was launched in order to change the laws on seat belts on school buses and this was successful following another mother who had also seen her son injured just months before the Hagley crash leading the campaign.

This disaster is one that shocked the country and one that I would like to highlight in a book on Britain's Forgotten Disasters at some point in the near future. If you can help with the story in any way then please contact me to tell your story. Inicidents like this should not be confined to a few news articles online, with 27 years passing this November, the memories of these victims should be forever held close to us.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Sinking of the Heraklion

Few disasters could ever conjure up the horror of death as that of being trapped within a sinking ship, and for the 1960s a shipwreck such as this was far from anybody's' mind as the passengers and crew plied the Aegean Sea on the the roll-on-roll-off ferry Heraklion.

Built in 1949 as the SS Leicestershire she plied for many years on a route from the UK to the Far East before being sold in 1964 to Greek owners and refitted out as a ferry for the routes that took her around Piraeus to Crete.

On 7th December 1966 she sailed from Souda Bay in Crete in the middle of a storm that some say should have been avoided. However, she ploughed on with her journey following a delay while they waited for a refrigerator truck to be embarked.

In the early hours of the following morning that same truck broke loose and smashed the midships loading doors open and plunged into the sea, it was later found floating by a passing ship. Water flooded onto the car deck and within minutes the ship was doomed.

Heraklion transmitted an SOS just after 0200 and although several ships raced to the scene, the closest one failed to received the message.

A huge rescue operation was mounted by ships of the Royal Navy and US Navy as well as the Hellenic Coast Guard but all that was found was a measly bunch of survivors in the water.

Only 46 people were rescued, leaving 217 dead, although this figure has always been disputed due to people being allowed on board without a ticket which at the time was common practice.

The investigations later revealed that the crew had been negligent during the evacuation and that documents were faked which led to two members of the company that owned the ship going to jail on manslaughter charges.

Today in the town of Chania there is a memorial to the victims of the disaster called The Monument of the Hand which was erected in 1990.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Crash of Knight Air Flight 816

On 24th May 1995 Britain was shocked by the front pages of the newspapers announcing the death of 10 people in a coach crash on the M4 motorway the day before, a disaster that eventually would see three more people die over the coming days. But in less than 24 hours there would be a second transportation disaster, only this time there would be an element of mystery surrounding the cause.

Knight Air flight 816 was a twin-engined Brazilian made Embraer Bandeirante which was one of six aircraft for the airline which was now running commuter flights from Leeds-Bradford Airport to Aberdeen, Isle of Man, Southampton, Teesside and Belfast. Flying the aircraft was Captain John Casson and his co-pilot John Denton who together had a vast amount of flying experience.

With one stewardess on board, the plane carried a total of nine passengers on an evening trip to Aberdeen that was about to head into bad weather, but this wasn't much of a concern as the pilots had flown through this dozens of times before. The plane taxied to the runway and was given clearance for take off at 1746, heading towards Scotland with an expected arrival time of 1835. This aircraft had completed this journey several times a day and it was a safe and reliable plane with a competent crew. The passengers sat back and relaxed as the Embraer increased speed and took off from the end of the runway.

But just three minutes into the flight the pilot radioed the airport requesting permission to return to the airport. At 1750 the aircraft was in complete silence as it disappeared from RADAR. The controllers now had cause for concern.

The fog that seemed to envelope the whole of Yorkshire was not one that caused a great concern, but when the emergency services got a call just before 1800 that a possible light aircraft had crashed into a field in the tiny village of Dunkeswick in North Yorkshire, ambulances with police and fire teams rushed to the scene. When they reached the field, a mess of twisted wreckage gave them all the information they needed.

Firstly this was not just a light aircraft, secondly there were no survivors of the 12 people on board. The roads were closed off as teams from the Air Accidents Investigation Branch began their examination of the wreckage and had it taken away piece by piece.

The news crews turned up and broadcast live from the scene of the disaster and also carried an interview with a young boy who claimed to have heard over his radio the last words from the aircraft, saying that they had been struck by lightning before it went dead.

Upon studying the broken pieces of the flight, investigators found that there was reason to believe that there were problems with the artificial horizon. There were two of them on board for flying in reduced visibility, the only problem was that if one of them were to give a false reading in a failure, that left you with two horizons both saying different readings. At this point which horizon do you trust? The resulting struggle to fly the aircraft sent it into a spiral into the field eight miles away from the airport.

The final report blamed the failure of the horizon and suggested that all aircraft install a total of three artificial horizons in the event of one giving a false reading, the other two would read the same correct level.

25 years on this disaster is pretty much forgotten, there are people who live close to the crash site today that don't even know that the nearby field has a grim history.

Knight Air ceased trading less than a year later, the bosses claiming that the crash had not influenced their decision. An inquest was held in November 1996 with the jury returning a verdict of accidental death on the twelve victims.

Today there is nothing to suggest anything untoward happened in the field in Dunkeswick that was the site of so much grief. But the nearby village of Weeton has the Church of St Barnabas there is a memorial stone dedicated to those who lost their lives in the crash of Knight Air flight 816.

Note - I am writing a book on British disasters that have been forgotten over the years and plan to include a chapter on Knight Air 816. If you know or have anything relating to this crash then please contact me

Monday, April 13, 2020

Calshot - A Fight to Save the Queen Mary's Tug Tender

Resting alongside her berth in the port of Southampton lies an old-looking vessel that has probably seen better days and wouldn't look out of place in a historic dockyard like Chatham or Portsmouth. But this empty vessel has a proud history and is part of this city's heritage and played a huge role during the golden years of the ocean liners of yesteryear. In the days when liners were getting so big that they needed smaller ships to ferry the passengers, ships like these were built specifically to cater for this market. One of these was the Calshot.

The 147 foot long Calshot was launched on 4th November 1929 for the Red Funnel Line to work as both a tender to ferry passengers out to the liners and also as a tug to pull these same liners in and out of their berths when entering and leaving port. The idea was that the vessel would meet the ships out in the Solent which would save time and effort bringing a huge liner up to Southampton just to embark a few passengers as they were going past. This had worked well for the White Star Line with the Olympic and Titanic when they had several of their own tenders taking personnel out to the ships while they remained at anchor (the ports being too small or unequipped to enter).

On 27th May 1936 the Cunard White Star Line's newest ship, the RMS Queen Mary, set sail from Southampton on her maiden voyage in what was a headline hitting event that was expecting records to be broken. As the Calshot moved her out of her berth, the entire scene was filmed and photographed for the press, the small vessel taking centre stage after the liner.

At the outbreak of the Second World War the Calshot was taken up to the River Clyde and used to ferry servicemen to the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, the latter being so new she had still not been used as an actual passenger liner yet. Sent back to Southampton in time for D-Day where she was one of thousands of vessels to take part in the biggest seaborne invasion force in history, moving sections of Mulberry Harbour into position at Juno Beach.

After the war she was back to the job that she was designed to do and successfully carried out hundreds of tasks over the next two decades, her last being the Queen Mary, now an old liner and not far from being sold off as jet airlines were making the big liners obsolete.

In 1964 she was sold to a company to use in Galway Bay in Ireland where she was renamed Galway Bay. Serving the Holland-America line ships, she was fitted out as a ferry where she could carry up to 400 passengers at a time. She carried on this role for many years and in that time the great ocean liners became a thing of the past.

As her age began to show, she was purchased by Southampton City Council and brought back down to Southampton in 1986 to be part of a museum exhibition and permanent mooring with the intention of becoming open to the public, resuming the original name of Calshot in 1990.

But none of this has never happened, save for the name change. Instead she has been moved around the dockyard and neglected until a group of enthusiasts called Tug Tender Calshot Trust took her under their wing. Although she has been declared unseaworthy, they believe that this vessel should be saved for the sake of history, she is almost a century old and has a fascinating past.

The list of famous ships that the Calshot had served is like a Hall of Fame of liners - Olympic, Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth, United States, Caronia, Aquitania to name just a few. Everybody remembers these big liners but they couldn't function without the little ships doing their jobs. It wasn't just the liners either - she carried many VIP's to these ships including Prime Minister Winston Churchill and various Hollywood actors.

Today the Calshot is in danger of being lost forever. She needs work to be done to stop her from rotting away and being taken away for scrapping. One day she could be in the same state as the Belfast has done to the Nomadic, with fresh paint, restored to her former glory and open to the public. The people who are passionate about Calshot are in a race against time to stop her from taking in rain water and slowly rusting away. It is with these people and their passion that this vessel has a life line.

But the Trust needs the help of maritime enthusiasts and history fanatics everywhere. The Calshot is an old girl and she needs volunteers, paint, funding and attention to make sure this historic piece of our maritime past is not left to the breakers yard. Only time will tell if we can save her in time.

If you are interested in learning more or can do something to help then visit the Trust website at or visit their Facebook page.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Clapham Rail Crash 1988

The run up to Christmas 1988 was going to be as busy as ever, especially for London which is already crammed as ever with shoppers and workers alike. In the early morning of 12th December a faulty wiring issue on the railway signals at Clapham Junction, the busiest station in the city, caused a signal to be displayed incorrectly in the run up to the station.

The 0718 Basingstoke to Waterloo train had made the journey without incident until now when all of a sudden the green light at Clapham changed to red before it had chance to even slow down. The driver stopped the train and used the phone to inform the signal box of what had happened. At 0810, while the train was waiting for the green light to go, a second passenger train suddenly came around the bend and slammed into the back of the first. The resulting crash left a heap of wreckage and devastation across the tracks, dozens of people were injured, several were dead, but the disaster was not over yet.

A third train, carrying no passengers, smashed into the wreckage causing even more carnage. A fourth train saw what happened and was able to stop in time before he too would collide with them. By now the wreckage was already strewn over the multiple tracks and one of the busiest lines was now out of action.

Rescue services were called and were met with a massive task of trying to get down to the wreckage of the three trains from an embankment above. A local school was right next to the crash site and helped with the rescue of survivors. The operation to recover the wounded took until the early afternoon as the injured people ran into the hundreds. Bodies were retrieved from the wreckage and had to be hauled up the embankment to waiting vehicles to be taken away.

The final toll was 35 dead and almost 500 injured. An investigation was carried out and found that an engineer had conducted a wiring job without supervision, checks and tests leading to the signal failing to show a red light when a train occupied that section of track. This wasn't the only headline hitting disaster for Britain, for just 9 days later the Scottish town of Lockerbie was host to the country's worst air disaster. The Christmas of 1988 was tinged with sadness on both ends of the country.

Today a memorial stands on Spencer Park overlooking the spot where the disaster happened. Every year survivors and relatives gather to pay their respects to the day that brought Clapham Junction to a halt and ended the lives of so many people.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Yamato - The Loss of Japans Most Powerful Warship

75 years ago the largest and most powerful battleship in the world was lost in the Pacific in what was described as a suicide mission which cost the lives of over 3000 crew members.

She had started out as a top secret project by the Imperial Japanese Navy when they designed two sister ships Yamato and Musashi. Built in Hiroshima, she was launched at the Kure shipyard in 1940 and her fitting out saw an incredible amount of fire power installed on her. At 862 feet long she was 70,000 tons when fully loaded and was in impressive sight for anybody who was sent to serve on her.

Sent for trials in 1941 she was commissioned just days after the attack on Pearl Harbour and spent the next two years on patrols and escort duties until she was hit by a torpedo in December 1943 leading to her putting into dock for repairs.

The Battle of Leyte Gulf on 22-24 October 1944 saw her first real action where she received action damage from aircraft bombings which killed 21 of her crew, but the real damage was her sister ship Musashi which was bombarded and eventually sank with over 1000 of her crew lost with her.

With the Allied invasion of Okinawa the Japanese were fast losing their grip on control of the Pacific and Yamato was sent to fight the American fleet on 7th April 1945, what they didn't know was that their messages had already been decoded and Yamato's position was already known.

Hundreds of aircraft were sent to intercept the incoming fleet and when they did it was a devastating raid on the helpless warships. Bomb after bomb scored a direct hit until eventually the ship became crippled and the order was given to abandon ship. Suddenly the magazines, which had been sounding a warning of high temperature, exploded with a huge shock wave, ripping the ship up.

In less than two hours of battle she was gone, just a few hundred survivors in the water were all that was left of Japans most powerful battleship.

In the early 1980s several expeditions were launched to search for the wreck of Yamato and in 1984 it was positively identified on the seabed in two large pieces. The bow and stern sections are resting together but facing each other almost, the stern completely upside down.

Several missions to the wreck have brought back incredible footage of the famous sun crest on the bow as well as her open gun turrets. With the renewed interest in this lost battleship the Kure Maritime Museum opened in 2005 with a huge model of the Yamato in the main hall. Nicknamed the Yamato Museum, her life story is
told on the exact spot where the ship was fitted out.

Today the ship is commemorated on several memorials and her story is told in museums around the world.