Monday 24 October 2016

The raw pain: a decade after school bus crash nightmare

A heartbroken community remembers darkest day. Could it happen now?

Graham Clifford

Published 24/05/2015 | 02:30

Never forgotten: The memorial where a bus crashed in 2005 killing five young female students on the road between Navan and Kentstown. Photo: Mark Condren
Never forgotten: The memorial where a bus crashed in 2005 killing five young female students on the road between Navan and Kentstown. Photo: Mark Condren

A gentle breeze weaves through the five ­flowering cherry trees by the side of a country road. In April their pink flowers bloom. In nearby fields, cattle graze, crops sway with the wind and then, from above, comes a relentless downpour.

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I check my watch. It's just coming up to 4.17pm. Ten years ago today, at this hour, tragedy struck on the road between Navan and nearby Kentstown. A Bus Éireann school bus carrying 51 pupils overturned while rounding a bend on this road. Five young girls lost their lives.

Their names are etched into the open book monument at the site of the crash - they are Lisa Callan (15), Clare McCluskey (18), Aimee McCabe (15), Deirdre Scanlon (17) and Sinead Ledwidge (15).

"Beautiful children who were just starting out in life, it was so tragic and we think of them always," says Fr Peter Farrelly, the parish priest in Beauparc from where three of the victims came.

Indeed Fr Peter christened two of them, Sinead and Aimee, while he says Deirdre had her christening just days before he arrived in the parish. He'd watched them grow up but in 2005 had to lay them to rest.

"Aimee served Mass and was in the choir here while Sinead was in the local Kentstown and Seneschalstown accordion band and Deirdre lived just across the road. Each of them were so special and full of life," says Fr Peter.

As he talks, his eyes well up. Even with the passing of years, the enormity of the tragedy is still very much alive.

It was a miserable Monday afternoon as students boarded the bus at the Navan depot to go home. They chatted and some played on their mobile telephones as the bus headed out of town on the R153 road to Kentstown. About four miles outside Navan, tragedy struck.

The bus veered into oncoming traffic after it skidded when the driver, John Hubble, applied the brakes to stop at a set of temporary traffic lights positioned after a bend in the road. A counter flow traffic system had been put in place and a one-way system was in operation. After the driver applied the brakes a second time, the bus veered on to the right-hand side of the road, lost control and hit one vehicle which, in turn, hit the car behind it.

The bus swung, as if on a hinge, and ended up in an embankment and tumbled on to its side. The windows smashed and the schoolchildren were thrown out of the openings. The crash victims were killed instantly when the vehicle fell on top of them.

Panic ensued. Across the road from the crash site the injured were brought to the front yard of local farmer Gerry Lardner. It became, in effect, a field hospital.

As news of the tragedy spread, the families of the killed and injured could hardly believe what they were hearing. Some attempted to travel to the crash site, others were frozen in shock. "Every family locally had a member of their family on that bus or a near neighbour," explains Fr Peter.

Over the last decade, the families of the five girls who died have maintained a dignified silence. Quiet people trying to remember their cherished daughters in their own personal way.

Behind the Church of the Assumption in Beauparc are the graves of three of the victims. All three in the same row, all lovingly and perfectly maintained.

Guardian angel figurines, a birthday girl glass and other mementoes can be found beside Aimee McCabe's headstone as well as a message from her closest friend and sisters. On Sinead Ledwidge's headstone sits a picture of the young teenager with her accordion. And the words of a poem she penned months before her tragic death called 'Canvass of the Mind' can be found. The verse speaks of 'Imagining my dreams, my future' and 'the endless possibilities for many adventure bold'.

In Navan, the tragedy still haunts locals. Florist James Bell told me: "A hush fell over the place. I recall the following lunchtime when the teenagers were out from school and they were just so utterly stunned. And I remember the evening when the hearses carrying the coffins came home from the hospital, people lined the country roads, devastated."

Yesterday, the St Michael's Loreto school community, of which Clare, Deirdre, Aimee and Lisa were a part, held a remembrance mass. Principal Miriam Marsh told me: "While preparing for our Mass has rekindled the trauma and emotions of May 2005, we hope that our service will help to provide a measure of comfort and solace to the families."

Bus Éireann pleaded guilty to charges that it failed to ensure the bus was maintained in a safe condition in that the anti-locking breaking system (ABS) was not working and that it failed to instruct the driver of this. Also Meath County Council pleaded guilty to the charge that it failed to prepare a health and safety plan for the construction work on the road and that it failed to appoint a project supervisor in relation to the works. In 2008, Bus Éireann was fined €2m and Meath County Council and Keltank Ltd (a garage which serviced the bus) were each fined €100,000.

Bus Éireann told the Review that since 2005, all their school buses have been fitted with safety belts and that their fleet undergoes regular testing.

"In the last three years, for example, there have been 32 million journeys undertaken on Bus Éireann school buses with only 19 relatively minor incidents involving injuries recorded. In all, the incident rate was well below one incident per million journeys undertaken from 2012 up to, and including, 2014," said a spokesperson.

And Damien English, Minister of State at the Department of Education and a Meath West TD, told me: "Since the accident significant measures have been taken to ensure the safety of children availing of transport services under my department's school transport scheme.

"These include the fitting of safety belts on all school buses… and the abolition of the '3 for 2' accommodation ratio (schoolchildren used to be carried on the basis of three children to two adult seats) which had been a practice up until then in common with other jurisdictions".

The improvements to bus safety are obviously welcomed but they come too late for five bright, beautiful and energetic young girls who just wanted to be at home with their families after a day at school.

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