Sunday, November 6, 2011

M5 crash death toll confirmed at seven

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Police say worst fears not realised after forensic search of motorway crash site but victims not yet identified

The death toll from the pile-up on the M5 remains at seven with no further bodies found overnight, police claim.

Drivers and passengers died as vehicles caught fire in the accident near Bridgwater in Somerset on Friday night. Fifty-one people were injured.

There were fears the numbers would reach double figures and concerns it could end up being the worst motorway accident in British history.

But forensic experts worked through Saturday night examining the scene and Avon and Somerset police said no more bodies had been found.

Incident commander Assistant Chief Constable Anthony Bangham said: "Overnight all the vehicles involved in this tragic incident have been removed the scene.

"Our worst fears have not been realised and the number of those that sadly lost their lives remains at seven."

He added that extensive work has been carried out to identify the victims and their families and that family liaison officers were being appointed to support them. Formal identification has not taken place, this will happen in the coming days, he said.

"We are now working with our partners to carry out the required work on the carriageway and open the road as soon as it is safe to do so. We thank everyone for their support and patience and this extremely difficult time."

The wreckages had been cleared by 9am on Sunday with the stretch of motorway remaining shut as the Highways Agency prepares to repair the damaged surface.

Eyewitnesses reported how the crash, which involving more than 30 vehicles, triggered a massive fireball that could be seen miles away. One said: "People were trapped in their vehicles. I heard people screaming and children crying. There was also fuel which had spilled on to the road surface which was exploding."

Ciara Neno, from Weston-super-Mare, was one of the survivors. She said a "black fog" came down and a lorry in front of the car she was in "disappeared".

"We managed to brake and miss the lorry but it was too late, the carnage had already started. All we heard was thump, thump, thump. My husband dragged people from the cars, the smell was horrendous and there were a number of explosions. We walked away but other people weren't so lucky."

The tragedy is likely to renew the debate about motorway safety. It comes just weeks after the government announced plans to raise the speed limit to 80mph. Thirty-four vehicles were involved in the accident, which happened at 8.25pm on Friday.

"I could see the flames from quite a way back," said Simon Bruford, 38, from Williton in Somerset, who was driving south at the time of the crash. "I spent 18 years in the Somerset fire service and have seen a lot of nasty things, but that was horrific."

The vicar at St Mary Magdalene church in Taunton said the town was in shock. The Rev Rod Corke added: "My heart goes out to those who have suffered as a result of this tragedy."

In 1993, 12 children and their teacher died when their minibus smashed into the back of another vehicle on the M40 in Warwickshire. Two other motorway accidents, in 1984 and 1985, each claimed 13 lives. In 1991 on the M4 near Hungerford, Berkshire, 10 people died and 25 were injured in a 51-vehicle crash.

The stretch of the M5 where the latest tragedy occurred is not considered a traffic blackspot. Police were investigating the possibility that thick, patchy fog had rapidly descended on the motorway, dramatically cutting visibility.

Weather forecasters said conditions had been misty in the area and any bonfires burning nearby could have made things worse.

"The particles bonfires release encourage fog droplets to form," said Gareth Harvey, a forecaster at MeteoGroup. "By 9pm there were weather stations in the county reporting visibility down to 100 metres. The roads would also have been wet due to an earlier deluge."

Police will also be talking to the organisers of a fireworks display at a rugby club. Some people have wondered if drivers may have been distracted by the display.

Bangham has pledged a comprehensive and thorough investigation. "Other factors come into play in the evening and we need to take a close look to see if they caused some kind of distraction," he said.

Ministers are to launch a consultation later this year with a view to introducing an 80mph limit on motorways in 2013.

But the Liberal Democrat MP for Taunton Deane, Jeremy Browne, said the accident should be not be used to shape the debate. "People talk about speed limits, 70mph or 80mph, but the crucial thing is to make a judgment about what is the safe speed limit for the conditions you find yourself in," Browne said.

"I was in Taunton and it was a pretty wet, dank and misty night. Visibility can be bad on that stretch of low-lying road but it is a pretty unremarkable stretch of motorway." © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds