(Please note this article contains details and images which some readers may find upsetting)
30 years ago, just before 7.20am on the chilly morning of Monday December 12th 1988, the characteristic sound of doors slamming shut on an old-style British Rail train echoed along the platform at Basingstoke station as hundreds of commuters crammed into a service bound for London Waterloo.
For the next forty minutes the train rattled along without incident.
That was until it approached a green signal which suddenly flickered to red without warning.
Unable to stop in time, the driver- Alexander McClymont– halted the train in a cutting on Wandsworth Common, just before Battersea Rise and about half a mile south of Clapham Junction station, where he climbed down from the cab and used a trackside telephone to inform the nearest signal box of the problem.
After being told there was nothing to worry about Alexander hung up but as he did so a second train- this one heading up from Bournemouth- roared around the corner at approximately 50mph.
The time was 8.13am.
According to witnesses onboard, the driver of this train- John Rolls– barged through the door of his cab in the final seconds before impact, no doubt realising it was impossible to brake in time.
The Bournemouth train ploughed into the Basingstoke service, killing John and many others instantly. To those nearby, it sounded like a bomb had gone off.
Lee Middleton– a survivor on the Bournemouth train- described the moment: “I heard a deafening noise and then all hell let loose. We were getting thrown around the carriage like rag dolls… I heard crying and moaning… I thought it was curtains for me.”
Lee found himself pinned beneath the wreckage, his gaze forced towards the clear winter sky which had been exposed after the carriage roof was, as another survivor put it, “split open like a ripe tomato.”
Back at the trackside meanwhile, Alexander could only watch in horror as carriages from his Basingstoke train were thrown into the air, hurling a number of passengers out. He immediately snatched the phone back to alert the signal box and call for emergency services.
To make matters even worse a third train tore into the area moments later, smashing into the already tangled wreckage. Mercifully this train was empty, although tragically a number of people who’d been ejected from the Basingstoke carriages were crushed beneath its wheels.
It was only by sheer fortune that a fourth train managed to stop in time just yards from the carnage.
Alongside personnel from London’s emergency services- including doctors who performed a number of operations and amputations on site, the greatest heroes that day were pupils from the Emanuel School which is located on the embankment overlooking the disaster zone.
Upon hearing the terrifying smash, teenagers far too young to witness the horror they were about to encounter scrambled down the slope to help. The very first person to enter the stricken carriages was Terry Stoppani whose birthday it happened to be that day.
He’d just turned 12 years old.
“There was a huge bang, just like a bomb explosion” Terry explained when interviewed. “I saw all parts of the train flying into the air…we jumped over the railings and climbed into the train through a broken window. The first thing I saw was legs with jeans and shoes on. There was no top half of the body… In the train people were screaming and too frightened to talk. We started pulling people out through the window.”
Another pupil- 18 year old sixth former, Simon Murie– yanked wreckage away with his bare hands, comforting victims as he did so.
Another un-named 14 year old held a trapped passenger upright in their twisted seat for several hours before they could be freed.
Many of the passengers were in a deep state of shock, so much so that they were unable to comprehend where they were or what had happened.
The young rescuers from the Emanuel School were praised by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and visited by the Secretary of State for Education who thanked them personally for “Their immense courage and maturity.”
A BBC news report from the evening of December 12th 1988 detailing the catastrophe can be viewed below:
Overall 35 people were killed and hundreds more injured in what became known as the Clapham Rail Disaster.
Amongst the dead was technician Michael Newman whose glittering theatre signs for shows such as ‘Cats’, ‘Singing in the Rain’ and ‘Phantom of the Opera’ earned him the nickname, “the man who brought the West End to light.”
On a personal note, my father knew Mike and had worked alongside him installing these famous displays.
It was determined that the cause of the accident- the light which had inexplicably flicked from green to red- was down to faulty signal wiring housed within a unit that was approximately fifty years old.
The electrician who’d overlooked the fault had been on voluntary overtime which had seen him working seven days a week for the past thirteen weeks; a regime which had inevitably led to exhaustion. It was also noted his training, assessment and supervision had been woefully inadequate.
As a result, British Rail were fined £250,000 although many believed the company should’ve been prosecuted for Corporate Manslaughter.
In 1989 a memorial to those who were killed and injured was unveiled on Spencer Park which overlooks the site of the tragedy.
At 8.13am on Wednesday 12th December 2018, the train drivers’ union, ASLEF will be staging a two minute silence beside the memorial to mark the disaster’s thirtieth anniversary.