France coach crash: witness describes seeing 'children caked in mud and blood'
A COACH driver who was among the first on the scene at the ski trip motorway crash that left a teacher dead and several pupils injured yesterday described how he came across "children caked in mud and blood".
As the driver of the stricken coach, Derek Thompson, appeared in a French court charged with manslaughter on suspicion he had fallen asleep at the wheel, fellow coach driver Andy Dennis described the "horrific sights and sounds" he encountered minutes after the tragedy.
Speaking to The Daily Telegraph, he said: "There were a few [people] lying outside the coach at the back and they must have come out the window.
"There was smashed glass everywhere and all you could hear was the sound of children crying and shouting.”
Mr Dennis, who was driving a separate group of schoolchildren home from Aosta in Italy, to Warminster, Wilts, said he and fellow driver Tony Smith came across the coach carrying 29 pupils and 19 adults from Alvechurch Middle School, Worcs, lying on its side moments after it had veered off the A26 in the rain near Chalons-en-Champagne, 90 miles east of Paris, around 2.15am on Sunday.
He said: “We told the children on our coach to close the curtains because they wouldn't want to see it and Tony and I got out with the teachers and a first aid box.
"It must have just happened.
"The coach's front window was smashed so people started helping children out through it. The coach driver was trapped in his seat.”
He said paramedics were quickly on the scene and started “patching up the walking wounded and putting them on our coach.
"We took about 35 children on our bus, which seemed like most of them, and the French police officer told us to take them to the village hall, where they had set up a makeshift hospital.”
Mr Dennis, from Andover, Hants, who works for the coach company Clegg and Brooking, said the stretch of road was known as the “graveyard shift” by drivers because it is “very bleak, black and bland”.
He added: "There were no crash barriers, which I would have expected because the road was by a steep bank."
Suzie Warner, a 13-year-old pupil, who was left in a coma after the accident, woke late on Sunday night, it emerged.
Her parents, Philip and Vivienne, who flew out to be at her side, sent a text message to their neighbours confirming she had come round.
As hundreds of messages of support were left for the teenager on Twitter, her grandmother, Barbara Wood, from Bingley, West Yorks, said: "It is good news that she is out of the coma.”
Mr Thompson, 47, was last night charged with manslaughter and involuntarily causing injuries and released on bail following a short hearing in front of an examining judge in the Palais de Justice in Chalons-en-Champagne.
Christian de Rocquigny, the Chalons prosecutor, said that the charges both effectively related to the alleged carelessness of the driver causing injury.
He said that Mr Thompson would be free to return to the UK, so long as he returned for any future trial.
Mr Thompson was arrested on Sunday morning and told prosecutors that he did not fall asleep at the wheel and “didn’t understand what happened”.
Christian de Rocquigny, the prosecutor of Chalons-sur-Champagne, said: “An examination of the tachnograph shows that starting from 2.21am, namely in the 10 minutes leading up to the accident, his speed varied between 80 and 100 kilometres per hour, suggesting he was in the process of falling asleep.”
He said that Thomson, a diabetes sufferer, had whiplash and because there was no deliberate failures of security, was likely to be allowed to return to the UK whilst the investigation is ongoing.
The family of Peter Rippington, 59, the teacher who died when the coach crashed near Rheims, said they were “devastated at the tragic loss of Peter, a wonderful husband, father, son, brother, son-in-law, brother-in-law, uncle, friend and teacher”. He was due to retire in April.
Mr Rippington’s wife, Sharon, remained in hospital and was with their daughter, Amy, the captain of West Bromwich Albion ladies’ team, who escaped with minor injuries.
Yesterday 11 people remained in hospital, six of them seriously injured, though none thought to be life threatening. Those well enough to travel back to England did so on Sunday.
Bryan Maybee, chairman of the school governors said Mr Rippington was a "dedicated and inspirational teacher", who will be “so sadly missed by all those who knew him”.