Fatal train wreck caps Britain's month of misery

Freak crash kills 13

no respite from woes

March 01, 2001|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - A freak high-speed train crash that killed 13 people and injured 70 yesterday ended a horrific month for a besieged Britain already reeling from farming disasters and weather woes.

From an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease that continued its relentless spread across the British countryside yesterday to the usual rotten winter weather, topped off by a paralyzing blizzard that snarled roads in Scotland and caused power outages, the country absorbed multiple blows in recent weeks.

Queen Elizabeth II appeared to sum up the mood after the train crash when she said in a condolence message: `This is a particularly shocking tragedy coming on top of so much anxiety and loss from the foot-and-mouth outbreak and, before that, the recent floods."

Nothing could have prepared Britain for yesterday morning's train crash near the village of Great Heck in North Yorkshire, 160 miles from London. It was the country's fourth fatal train accident in four years and second since October.

The 4:45 a.m. Newcastle-to-London train operated by a company called GNER met a grisly end after an incredible sequence of events starting when a Range Rover towing a station wagon on a trailer slid off a highway bridge, down a hill and onto the track.

The 36-year-old driver got out of the vehicle and used his mobile telephone to alert authorities and shouted into the phone: "The train's coming."

The operator taking the call heard a loud smash, according to police officials.

The passenger train slammed into the vehicles at 125 mph, derailed and but remained upright for a quarter-mile. The doomed train then collided with a 17-car freight train, which was traveling at 60 mph and laden with a 1,000 tons of coal.

The devastating crash left twisted rail cars spread across the tracks and into nearby fields. Many of the injured passengers used mobile phones to call for help.

"I have never seen anything like this before and I pray to God I never see anything like it again," Christopher Garnett, GNER's chief executive, told reporters.

The driver of the Range Rover was not hurt and is being questioned by police. "He's completely devastated knowing what happened as a result of his vehicle going onto the tracks," a police spokesman said.

Many survivors said they felt lucky to have left the train alive.

Laurie Gunson of York told Britain's Press Association, "The carriage roof was torn off, and I was flung down the length of the corridor and found myself on the floor together with a fellow lady passenger. We talked to keep our spirits up."

Public confidence in Britain's railways has collapsed since a series of fatal crashes after the system's privatization in the mid-1990s. Four people were killed in October when a train derailed at Hatfield. That led to hundreds of miles of track being replaced, and train travel slowing to a crawl.

Meanwhile, British farmers continued to reel from the foot-and-mouth outbreak that was detected at an Essex slaughterhouse Feb. 19 and has now been identified at 26 sites, with fears it might have spread to Northern Ireland.

Sheep slaughtered at a farm in Armagh in Northern Ireland showed signs of the disease, according to the province's agriculture minister, Brid Rodgers.

"I have to tell you that it is now my belief that we are looking at an outbreak of this disease in Northern Ireland," she said last night.

In Europe, France ordered a slaughter of 30,000 animals that might have come into contact with British livestock. Officials in Germany and the Netherlands are also monitoring livestock and ordering slaughter of animals in a bid to prevent an outbreak of the disease.

With British livestock transportation halted until March 16, the country's livestock exports banned worldwide and as many as 15,000 animals due for slaughter, the government has earmarked $242.4 million to compensate beef, sheep and dairy farmers.

While shoring up politically powerful farmers, officials are also desperately trying to stamp out the fast-moving virus that can be spread by vehicles, clothes and wind.

Saturday's Wales-Ireland rugby match in what is known as the Six Nations Championship was postponed, with officials fearing cancellation of the entire tournament that includes England, Scotland, France and Italy.

Horseracing events are canceled for one week, and there are concerns that some of the country's top steeplechase events, including April's Grand National, could be canceled.

The disease also could imperil British Prime Minister Tony Blair's apparent plan to call a springtime general election. An early April date is apparently out of the question, with even a long-anticipated May 3 date in doubt, because restrictions include people moving around in various parts of the countryside.

But not all is lost in Britain.

Yesterday, the organizers of one of the world's top dog events, Crufts, announced that next week's show would go on as scheduled after agriculture officials "confirmed that dogs and their handlers are not at risk from foot-and-mouth disease."

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