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'I survived the Clapham rail disaster but I will never forget'
IT was precisely 8.13am - the moment all hell broke loose 25 years ago today.
Lee Middleton pauses as he prepares to recall in graphic detail the sequence of events that led to him surviving one of the worst rail disasters this country has seen.
“I heard a deafening noise and then all hell let loose.
“I survived to tell the story but 29 people in the same carriage didn't,” he says.
The civil servant was onboard the Brockenhurst to Waterloo train in the front carriage as it slammed into the back of the stationery 7.18am from Basingstoke which had stopped near Clapham Junction station - one of the world's busiest railway junctions.
Seconds later an empty train travelling back from London smashed into the wreckage adding to both the destruction and death toll.
Thirty five people lost their lives and 113 were injured.
Hampshire was home to 15 of the people killed in the crash.
Lee explains: “We were all getting thrown around the carriage like rag dolls. We tumbled around and around in circles.”
His first memory after the chaos was laying on the floor of the twisted carriage - a heavy metal bar pressing hard against his throat.
Lee, who was 39 at the time and a father of two children aged nine and 12, was pinned to the floor when part of the carriage ceiling fell on him.
“Quite honestly, I thought this is it. I am going to die.
“I just looked up at the sky. It was a nice sunny, dry day and the sky was clear blue.
“I heard crying and moaning. It was horrible. I thought it was curtains for me.
“In a perverse way the bar pinning me to the bottom of the carriage was good because it meant I didn't see anything. I'm grateful for that because it meant I haven't suffered nightmares.”
Firefighters arrived at the scene and battled to prise the metal from Lee's neck using a sledgehammer.
He was taken by ambulance to hospital with a broken collar bone and a badly broken leg.
Along with many survivors of the crash, he was visited by the Prime Minister at the time Margaret Thatcher before he was transferred to Southampton General Hospital on December 23 so he could be closer to home for Christmas and was discharged on January 11.
“The chap opposite me on the train died and the two sat behind me died too.
“I am lucky to be alive, it was that close,” says Lee, who lived in Lymington at that time.
Faulty signalling was blamed for the collision and an inquest into the deaths of the victims returned a verdict of unlawful killing by British Rail, which was fined £250,000 after pleading guilty to failing to ensure the safety of employees and passengers.
Lee needed a bone graft and had nine months off work. The rail enthusiast spent months conquering his fear of trains.
He remarried, had a son who is now 18 and lives in Badger Farm, Winchester.
“My body has healed but I will never forget,” says the 64-year-old.
“Every year is always quiet reflection day for me. I always say a prayer and light a candle for the other commuters that day and to the families of all those who lost their lives.”
Alison's memory lives on
IT was her love of sailing that led to her catching the train that tragically ended her life.
Alison MacGregor, 32, worked as a trainee retail manager in London and would normally go back to the city on Sunday evening.
However the weather was so beautiful, the keen sailor decided to stay an extra night on the family's yacht after a trip to the Isle of Wight and return the next morning on the fated train.
But today her memory lives on and she has given 80,000 disabled people the chance to sail on Southampton Water.
Her parents Jimmy and Muriel, who has since passed away, decided to donate compensation money they received from British Rail to build the specially equipped boat named the Alison MacGregor when they heard a plea for cash on the radio from the New Forest Rotary Club as they left the memorial service in Winchester Cathedral.
The charity Solent Dolphin has recently launched its third Alison MacGregor vessel, which is based in Hythe Marina and takes wheelchair users, elderly people, disadvantaged youngsters and children with disabilities on free two hour trips to visit Southampton docks, the Itchen and the River Hamble.
Dr Charles Fay, general secretary of the charity, explained: “Her parents always said this is what Alison would have liked and we are proud to give so many people the chance to experience sailing.”
Survivors mark anniversary
THE 25th anniversary of the Clapham rail disaster will be marked by a simple ceremony today.
Survivors of the crash and families of those who died are due to gather at the memorial garden close to the site of the crash for a two minute silence.
Around two hours after the short service, a longer memorial service will be held on the same spot at 10.30am.
Among those joining the survivors and bereaved today is Marilyn Robinson from Bishop's Waltham.
The 68-year-old who was on the Basingstoke train has been haunted ever since she witnessed scenes of people bleeding and men taking off their jackets to cover up those who were badly injured or dead.
Marilyn, a trained counsellor, who has since helped set up the charity Disaster Action, said: “My thoughts will be the same as every time I pass the memorial site - they will be with all the people who died, all those who they left behind, with all the survivors and all the rescuers.
"The reality is our lives changed that day and they will never be the same again.”
An inquiry found the primary cause of the crash was incorrect wiring work which had led to a signal failure, leading to recommendations on working hours for safety-critical staff.
Today latest statistics show it is safer to travel by train than on the roads.
There have not been any accidents in which on board passengers or workforce have been killed for nearly seven years. In 1988, the year of the Clapham rail disaster, there were five such accidents.
The entire rail network now has a Train Protection and Warning System (TPWS) which automatically activates brakes on a train that has passed a red light or is overspeeding - as long as they are travelling at less than 75mph.
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