At least 7 killed and scores injured in motorway 'fireball'
Published 05/11/2011 | 09:51
At least seven people have been killed and 51 injured in a devastating motorway pile-up said to be among the worst UK collisions in living memory.
The crash on the M5 last night, which triggered a "massive fireball" on the carriageway, involved around 27 vehicles including several articulated lorries.
Emergency workers described it as "the worst road traffic collision anyone can remember".
Police were this morning still counting the death toll from the crash, which happened at about 8.25pm in wet and foggy conditions around junction 25 of the northbound carriageway.
The scene was close to Bridgwater Guy Fawkes Carnival and it was suggested that smoke from the event could have worsened the fog on the road.
Assistant Chief Constable Anthony Bangham from Avon and Somerset Police said a number of passengers had been unable to escape from their burning cars, some of which were razed to the ground.
"Tragically a number have lost their lives," he said. "The emergency services have been working tirelessly. The incident was very, very challenging and on arrival crews were faced with literally one massive fireball.
"Most vehicles were well alight and most continued to burn for a considerable time. This made it very difficult to search the vehicles. Some of them have been burned to the ground."
A "comprehensive and thorough" investigation into what caused the tragedy will be carried out, he added.
A huge force of police, fire and ambulance crews was called to the stricken stretch of motorway, which was immediately closed off in both directions.
It is expected to remain out of bounds for hours while emergency workers recover bodies and clear the debris.
Firefighters who scrambled around 15 appliances to the scene battled to rescue motorists by cutting people from cars and lorries using hydraulic equipment.
Television footage showed motorists trying to pry open vehicle doors in a bid to rescue those trapped.
Musgrove Park Hospital in Taunton treated 16 people who had suffered "a range of trauma injuries". Medical director Dr Colin Close said the hospital had dealt with "nothing of this magnitude ever before".
The injuries of those brought in ranged from simple limb fractures to more complex chest and abdominal trauma, he said, and one surgeon was flown in by helicopter from Exeter to help treat the casualties.
"They have been treated and none are in a critical condition," he added. "Everyone is stable."
A spokesman for Yeovil District Hospital said 26 casualties were admitted for treatment but 24 had since been discharged.
A man and a boy remained in hospital but their conditions were not thought to be life-threatening.
Meanwhile shocked witnesses described the inferno and ensuing carnage.
Simon Bruford, 38, from Willerton in Somerset, who was driving southbound, told the BBC: "I could see the flames from quite a way back.
"I spent 18 years in the Somerset fire service and have seen a lot nasty things, but that was horrific."
Paul O'Connor, who was travelling to Plymouth when the incident happened, told Sky News: "I thought it was something to do with Bonfire Night and then realised it was something quite bad.
"I have never seen anything like that. I could see people lying on the side of the road. It was quite disturbing really.
"I saw two people lying down and there were quite a lot of people around them. The emergency services were doing what they could. I don't know if they were okay."
Local resident Bev Davis heard the accident from her home close to the motorway.
"All we could hear was the sound of a horn and then the flames got so high so quickly and the noise was horrific," she told the BBC.
"There were explosions of what I think must have been tyres - it was as though the fireworks were starting again but we knew they had finished.
"There must have been 200 metres-worth of fire - plumes of smoke were going up and everything was red."
Weather forecasters said conditions had been misty around the area of the incident and any bonfires burning nearby could have made things worse.
Gareth Harvey, a forecaster at Meteogroup, the weather division of the Press Association, said: "The particles bonfires release encourage fog droplets to form.
"By 9pm there were (weather) stations in the county reporting visibility down to 100 metres. The roads would also have been wet due to an earlier deluge."
Edmund King, president of the AA, said the scale of the crash was similar to one on the M4 near Hungerford in Berkshire in 1991.
In foggy conditions 10 died and 25 were injured in a 51-vehicle smash, he said.