The day tragedy came to the Dales

Thirty years ago today, a coach crash in the Yorkshire Dales entered the history books as Britain's worst road accident. Yorkshire Post reporter Brian Dooks was there. TODAY almost every death crash site becomes a roadside shrine, but the scene of the country's worst road accident, in which 33 people were killed, remains anonymous.

Not so much as a small brass plaque marks the site of a coach crash in the Yorkshire Dales where a party of elderly women and their driver were killed 30 years ago today.

It was the Tuesday after the Spring Bank Holiday when the pensioners were picked up from terraced streets in the Lane House Road district of Thornaby-on-Tees for an outing that took them first to Ripon and Knaresborough.

But disaster was about to happen as their mystery tour headed for tea in Grassington. Between Pateley Bridge and Hebden, stand-in coach driver Roger Marriott, a British Steel security officer, missed a gear on the moorland road.

The brakes on the 45-seat coach rapidly overheated as it ran away down the half-mile long one-in-six hill, crashed through a steel safety barrier, hit the parapet of Dibbles Bridge, where the B6265 takes a right-hand turn, and plunged 15ft into a ravine.

The coach turned over in the air and came down on its fibreglass roof in the garden of a cottage where London barrister Lincoln Selligman was enjoying an extended Bank Holiday weekend.

He had no telephone, but sent passing motorists to dial 999.

As it hit the ground the aluminium sides of the coach buckled and the nearside was completely crushed. Emergency crews found the dead and injured in a small space in the wreckage. Stone from the bridge parapet was used to support hydraulic jacks to provide clearance as they worked inside. The senior fire officer at the scene, Assistant Divisional Officer Jack Rankin, of Harrogate, said: "We got two people out without too much difficulty, otherwise they were all trapped.

"Working inside was terribly difficult, because the dead and injured were jumbled together inside the half of the coach which was not flattened."

Ambulanceman David Rhodes, of Grassington, who was with one of the first emergency crews at the scene, said: "I had been to crashes at Dibbles Bridge before. All we could see from the road was the underneath of the bus. There were no noises from the wreck. We thought at first there was nobody there to make a noise. Then I saw three or four people out on the grass."

Mr Rhodes said there was no panic. "One old lady trapped by her legs could not move. She was very good though. She said she knew we were doing our best. I undid bolts and sawed one seat leg off to free her."

Fourteen survivors, including the driver's wife, Joan, who was seriously injured, were taken to Airedale Hospital, near Keighley.

The dead were initially laid out in body bags among the flowers in the garden of the cottage before the team of pathologists arrived.

The dead included a former Mayoress of Thornaby, 62-year-old widow Dorothy White, who had organised the outing.

Her neighbour said: "She lived her life for others. She was always out helping pensioners."

It took weeks for experts, including Department of Transport vehicle examiner Freddie Beardsell – later awarded a BEM for his work – to confirm what the driver, Mr Marriott, had already told witnesses as he lay dying. Brake failure had caused the tragedy.

Trapped up to his waist in the wreckage, Mr Marriott spoke to Elsie Townsend, who was with her husband, Leslie, and their family in a car which followed the coach down the hill.

Mrs Townsend, who took off Mr Mariott's tie and loosened his shirt to try to make him more comfortable, said he told her: "I had a bit of trouble with the gears and the brakes failed." He died before the Fire Service was able to cut him free.

The incident highlighted a national campaign to have electro-magnetic retarders fitted to all coaches as an auxiliary braking system. Today most coaches have them as one way of complying with an improved braking standard, but, 30 years after Dibbles Bridge, they are still not compulsory.

Two weeks after the Dibbles Bridge crash, the Yorkshire Post took a National Travel coach equipped with the safety system over the same route and on the one-in-six hill it was taken out of gear and the brakes were not applied.

Without the electro-magnetic retarder, which takes the load off mechanical brakes and prevents them overheating, the coach would have run away down the hill – reaching at least 50mph before having to negotiate the narrow right-hand bend over the bridge.

Fifty years earlier – on June 10, 1925 — Dibbles Bridge was the scene of an almost identical accident when the brakes failed on a coach carrying members of the York Municipal Officers Guild, and it crashed through the parapet and overturned, killing seven people and injuring 14.

The need for the retarders was underlined in November, 1975, when the owner of the death coach, Norman Riley, of Riley's Luxury Coaches, of Thornaby, pleaded guilty to using a vehicle on which the braking system was not properly maintained. He was fined 75.

Skipton magistrates were told that an examination of the wrecked coach – serviced eight days before the crash – showed it had severe brake faults. Although the brake linings were new, the defects meant there was no braking on the offside rear wheel.

Summing up after an inquest jury had returned verdicts of accidental death on the victims, Craven Coroner James Turnbull said: "This has been described as Britain's worst motor disaster. If it is true, let us all hope that it always retains that title."

To mark the 30th anniversary of the crash, the Mayors of Stockton and Thornaby will today lay floral tributes in a ceremony in the Thornaby Pavilion. Prayers will be read by the Vicar of North Thornaby, Father Harry Hopkins, and a minute's silence observed.