'I'm making an effort to live' - Irishwoman who lost husband, infant son and unborn daughter in tragic crash
In 2012, Elber Twomey was enjoying a family holiday when a suicidal driver slammed into her car, claiming the lives of her husband, infant son and unborn daughter. Here, the Cork woman tells how her faith helped her cope with unspeakable loss and the campaign in their memory that's kept her going
On Monday morning, Elber Twomey will wake, have breakfast, attend Mass in her local church in north Cork - and then get into her car and drive.
The anniversary of the horrific car crash which turned her life upside down is what she calls her "shut-down day".
"I just want to be on my own, with my thoughts," explains Elber, adding: "I'll drive to a beach somewhere, I find being by water calming and helpful. Last year after morning Mass, I got in the car and headed for Waterford, turned off my mobile and had a day on my own. It's my way of dealing with July 6."
It was on that date in 2012, that Elber, then 38, her husband, Con (39), and their 16-month-old son Oisín were driving through Devon, on their way home after enjoying a family holiday in Torquay. As Elber was five months' pregnant, the couple had decided that a holiday in the UK would be safer than flying further afield.
At 2.47pm, Polish taxi driver Marek Wojciechowski drove his car onto the wrong side of the road and crashed into the Twomey family's Volkswagen Golf. Little Oisín died at the scene, while Elber suffered extensive head and back injuries - tragically her unborn daughter, Elber-Marie, did not survive.
Con, who suffered serious brain injuries as well as broken ribs, a collapsed lung and abdominal injuries, spent a month at Derriford Hospital in Devon before being transferred back to Cork University Hospital in August 2012. He died on May 3 of the following year.
As we sit by the fast flowing river at Doneraile Park, trees gently swaying in the afternoon summer breeze reflected in the water, I ask Elber how she is coping. She pauses before telling me: "I'm not doing too badly I suppose. I'm trying to get some kind of routine into my life - I'm making an effort to live.
"There are little private things that you come across or see during a day, and they can really melt you."
I ask if she's sleeping. "That's getting better than it was," she answers. "For the first year-and-a-half after the crash I was surviving on two hours a night."
Elber says with time that she is learning to cope - but the unpredictability of grief means progress is slow and hard days are inevitable.
"I've developed more patience with people to be honest," she says. "Sometimes people say things with the best intentions in the world but I could find their words quite hurtful.
"Now I've become better at letting what they say go over my head, telling myself 'you know what, they didn't mean any offence, they're just trying to help'. Of course, at times, you just want to be on your own, but that's to be expected I think."
There isn't a day that goes by that Elber doesn't cry. She visits the grave of her husband and children every day unless she is travelling away from Meelin, the small north Cork village where the Twomey home can be found, and she attends Mass daily. She tells me her strong faith has seen her through the darkest of days and continues to sustain her.
"Before the crash I would have had a reasonable level of faith, I suppose, which I would have got from my parents. We would have gone to Mass every weekend. And when Con and myself put Oisín to bed every night, we'd say his bedtime prayers. I'd stay on then and say the rosary," she says. Elber briefly glances around as a young family noisily pass by, then looks back at me, and says: "Sure, if this was all we had I wouldn't be here. I do believe when I go, they will be there waiting for me."
The former primary school teacher, who met her construction worker husband-to-be in a nightclub in Kanturk in 2000, says it's unlikely she'll return to the classroom any time soon.
"It's still difficult [to be around] little people - like Oisín should be starting school this coming September," she says gently. "Of course that's been so hard to face."
But Elber feels she's nearing the point at which she might go back to work. "I've done two diplomas in counselling in Dublin in recent months and that helps me. Please God, I'll go back to college and make myself employable, maybe doing something like a higher diploma, we'll wait and see what happens."
On the day of the crash, 26-year-old Wojciechowski had argued with his wife, Agnieszka. When a four-page suicide note from the father-of-two was discovered at his home, police began searching for him as a person at risk. As a squad car approached with sirens blaring and lights flashing, he deliberately swerved across a busy dual-carriageway and crashed head-on into the Twomey family's car.
Today, I ask Elber - who has since met Wojciechowski's widow - if she's still angry about what happened and, if so, towards whom is that anger directed? She shakes her head.
"The anger is gone, believe me it was there, but not any more. When Con left, I decided I was going to focus on campaigning for police forces to have basic training in dealing with suicidal motorists. At the same time, I needed to get ready for the little man's (Oisín's) inquest.
"In the September after the crash, a friend of mine, Fr Mike, asked if I would pray for Marek. He believed it would help me in my grief. But I said 'no, not a hope'. I was cross at him for asking, he said he'd pray for Marek until a time when I could and I told him 'well, I hope you live a long time'.
"Two months later I was in a church and I found myself lighting a candle for Marek. I started trying to look at things from his point of view. If you like, I shifted my blame for what happened from Marek on to the police. But blame and anger don't get you anywhere."
She has never returned to the scene of the crash and says she never will. "When I went over to speak to the Devon and Cornwall Police about implementing basic training in how to deal with suicidal motorists, my only request to them is that we avoided the scene of the crash.
"And I did the same when I was over at the inquest for Oisín. I don't need to remember what happened and, thank God, I don't remember it so then why would I play with fire? I'd fear that maybe a silly tree on the side of a road could give me a flashback - so I won't risk that."
Had the young policeman who followed Marek Wojciechowski on that tragic day three years ago had basic training in how to deal with a suicidal driver, he wouldn't have pursued him as he did, the sirens wouldn't have sounded and the blue lights wouldn't have flashed.
"I met that young police officer, PC Bickford, over in Devon and realised that it wasn't his fault. He didn't have any help from his control room, no guidance, he was just in the car on his own. He did what he thought was right - that's where the campaign started from," explains Elber.
Now, as a result of Elber's campaign, the officers of the Devon and Cornwall Police force are given training in how to safely manage pursuits. And closer to home, the Garda Síochána now provide new recruits with basic suicide awareness training.
"I wrote to Nóirín O'Sullivan, who was then the acting Garda Commissioner, and she replied almost immediately. Soon afterwards I went to Templemore and spoke to trainees there. This year, the new trainee gardaí who graduated were the first to have had the new Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) done, which really is so fantastic," says Elber.
As she continues to deal with the loss of her soulmate and darling children, the focus and drive of Elber Twomey, in trying to make sure what happened to her beautiful family doesn't happen to anyone else, is inspiring.
I ask her what she thinks Con would make of her campaign and determination to help others.
A smile crosses her face as she thinks of her devoted husband of seven years. "I think he'd say she was always a bit beaky!" she jokes, adding: "Ah no, look I'm sure he'd be glad that some tiny bit of good came out of something so awful."
The Twomey Family 'Remorial' Weekend has raised €90,000 over the last two years for charities such as Pieta House, Suicide Aware (Cork), Inspire Ireland, 3Ts Dublin and Brú Colombanus - the accommodation for relatives of seriously ill patients in Cork hospitals.
"People locally have been so supportive, small communities really do everything they can when a tragedy like this occurs. On the remorial weekend we have a cycle, run and walk. The highlight for me is the Connie Twomey remorial cup for which six hurling sides compete. Con was a fantastic hurler, a centre-back. I often spent weekends roaring him on from the sidelines."
I ask Elber if she is able to think of a future for herself, a time when the hurt might be more manageable? "I think all I, or any of us can do, is live for today. Like you can't do anything about yesterday… and you might never see tomorrow."