JONATHAN Duckworth said goodbye to his wife and two children and set off to catch a train to London as he did every morning.
But just over an hour later, the routine journey turned into a horror story when the Great Western train he was travelling on collided with a Thames commuter train just outside Paddington, killing 31 people.
With 258 injured after becoming trapped inside the carriages which burst into flames, the Ladbroke Grove disaster remains one of the worst rail disasters in UK history.
Jonathan, the manager of a shopping centre in Bristol, was left with a damaged kidney and severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – and he is now unable to work.
Speaking to the Sun Online, Jonathan, 61, recalls the horrific events of that day, twenty years ago, and admits he is terrified that it could happen again.
‘I thought it was a bomb’
Driver Michael Hodder, 31, had been a qualified train driver for just two weeks when he took the controls of the 8.06am commuter train from Paddington to Bedwyn on the bright autumn morning of October 5.
Two minutes after pulling out Michael – possibly blinded by the rising sun – went through a red light and collided with a high speed Great Western train from Cheltenham driven by Brian Cooper, 52, at a combined speed of 130mph.
“There was a huge bang,” says Jonathan. “I could just see a lot of shocked faces and my first thought was that it could be a bomb.
“Then the train travelled through a fireball. The windows were still intact, but we could feel the heat through the windows and we were inside a ball of flame. It was shocking.”
Jonathan’s carriage turned over on its side and he was thrown across the carriage, landing in a heap at the bottom of the coach.
When the coach finally stopped, the panicking passengers found the doors wouldn’t open and had to smash through the windows at the top of the coach and clamber out.
On the tracks, Jonathan could see flames beginning to take hold in coach H – where temperatures reached 1200 degrees C. In this carriage, six of the 31 victims were found – and many more passengers were left with life-changing burns.
“Lots of dazed people were standing around and some of the people who got out of coach H were sitting on the side of the track in shock, badly burned, but alive.
“I could hear traffic in the distance, then sirens and the noise of the fire brigade attacking the fence to get to the site. Otherwise it was eerily quiet.”
Trapped inside burning carriages as passengers fight to save others
The scene around the train was horrific – with charred bodies lying on the tracks, the smell of burnt flesh and diesel fumes in the air.
Desperate commuters were still trapped in burning carriages, filling with poisoned gas, while those who were able began desperate attempts to get them out.
Some grabbed fire extinguishers but the flames were too strong, and businessman Colin Kola, who pulled a few people from a burning carriage, later recalled: “There was a lady inside…I just couldn’t get to her. She was jammed in and we were trying to break the window. I don’t think she came out alive.”
Doctors and nurses, on their way to work in London hospitals, did their best to treat fellow passengers in the four minutes before the ambulances began to arrive but with charred bodies and barely living casualties everywhere, many could not be saved.
“There was a lady on the track who was blackened with diesel fuel and burns,” said Peter Lee, a sales manager from Berkshire, at the time. “That was very upsetting – you could not tell how old she was, her face was so black. I also saw a guy running down the track who had lost most of his clothes and was partially ablaze. His legs seemed to be on fire.”
Steve Jones, inside the carriage H, said his ‘survival instinct’ kicked in.
“I managed to pull my whole body out through that hole and drop onto the tracks. But as soon as I was out I felt guilty because the train was an absolute inferno.”
‘Shaking and speechless with shock at daughter’s ‘boo”
As paramedics fought to save the worst cases, Jonathan and his fellow passengers were taken to a local primary school to be medically assessed and he was sent to hospital with a damaged kidney.
As he was being treated, news of the death toll trickled in, reaching the high twenties by the afternoon. The full count of 31 wasn’t released until several days later.
While his kidney and battered body soon recovered, the incident took its toll on his mind.
“At first I just felt lucky to be alive,” he says. “There was a sense of relief at having survived.
“But about a week after the crash, my wife Caroline and I went shopping with the kids, who were quite young. My wife asked me to go and get something while she and the kids went elsewhere and I just froze and said, ‘No, don’t leave me alone.’
“On another occasion, we were out for a walk and my daughter jumped out from behind a tree and went ‘boo’, as children do. I started shaking, unable to speak.”
After 18 months, Jonathan was diagnosed with PTSD and received a year of a revolutionary new treatment – eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR) – which he says helped.
But the PTSD “played havoc” with his memory and left him unable to work. At 61, he says he has “no career and no pension.”
To this day he avoids triggers such as flashing lights, smoke and G-forces so fairground rides and even action movies are a thing of the past.
He was travelling by train again within a few months but says it was “terrifying” and adds: “I still get nervous if things out of the ordinary happened, like breaking or bumping this. And I have to sit with my back to the engine, as I was at the crash. If the train changes direction, I change seats.”
‘The Lady in the Mask’
Pam Warren, was travelling in the coach in front of Jonathan’s when she suffered full depth and third-degree burns in the crash.
Her badly burned face, covered in a plastic mask to prevent scarring, became a symbol of bravery.
Suffering terrifying flashbacks, it took Pam a decade to get back on a train but, amazingly, she now commutes weekly past the site of the crash.
The 52-year-old, who now works as a motivational speaker, told the Mail: “I refuse to let the past define me.
“I don’t think travelling by train will ever be an enjoyable experience for me, I still feel nausea every time I take one. But I simply refuse to be beaten.
“The fear is always lurking in the background, but you just have to get on with it. I avoid sitting at the front as I did on that day or with my back to the direction of travel.”
Red signal had been passed eight times before
In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, it was thought that driver error was to blame but in 2000, a public inquiry led by Lord Cullen blasted Thames Trains for its “slack and less than adequate” safety culture.
It found that that signal so109, which Hodder had ploughed through, was hard to see and had been “passed at danger” eight times previously.
Just a year before the Ladbroke Grove crash, two trains had slammed on the brakes and stopped just 18 inches apart.
It also found that Thames Trains had reduced driver training to an inadequate level.
Thames Trains was fined £2 million in 2004. In 2007, after years of campaigning by the families, Network Rail was fined £4 million for health and safety breaches.
Paddington was followed by fatal crashes at Hatfield, Hertfordshire, in 2000, at Selby, North Yorkshire, in 2001 and at Potters Bar, Hertfordshire, in 2002.
Emergency at the site of the crash recall that the most memorable noise as they worked was the sound of mobile phones ringing, as people desperately tried to contact loved ones.
One of those callers was Denman Groves, whose 25-year-old daughter Juliet, an accountant in London, was on the train travelling out of Paddington.
Juliet’s body was one of the last to be discovered, eight days after the crash.
After the crash, Denman was left furious at the attitude of Thames Trains and Network Rail, who tried to shift the blame on to Hodder.
“It took eight years for Network Rail to apologise. I still think it is an absolute disgrace,” he told the Telegraph.
Timeline of the Ladbroke Grove disaster
- 06.03 Great Western Trains Paddington express left Cheltenham
- 08.06 Thames Trains service departs from Paddington to Bedwyn
- At 08.08 the Thames train passes red signal SN109 at 41mph and continues accelerating. Points beyond the signal carry the train onto parallel tracks and into the path of the express
- 08.11 the trains collide head-on with a combined speed of 130mph
- A 2000 inquiry highlights several failings, notably poor visibility at SN109 which had been passed at red eight times previously
‘Crash could be repeated if lessons are forgotten’
While Jonathan says measures implemented at the time were carried out, making the railways much safer today, he warns that a similar disaster could happen again.
“The industry needs to guard against complacency,” he says. “Just two months ago a sleeper train shot through Waverley station by some distance, because the brakes failed.
“What everyone in the industry needs to understand is that it only takes a small error – technical or human – to cause a repeat of our crash. But the consequences are huge – 31 people killed, hundreds injured and thousands of families and friends affected. And it was preventable.”
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Today’s memorial service is likely to be attended by around 350 people still affected by the events of that day and Jonathan says it raises a mixture of emotion.
“The anger is tempered by the fact that so much was done to make the railway safer. But it’s going to be terribly sad because there are 31 groups of families and friends who lost someone and it was unnecessary.
“I also feel concern that gradually over time the lessons, while not forgotten, are diminished, and other pressures come into the industry. And I would really hate to see anything like this happen again.”