Tuesday 14 August 2018

La vie est belle - the vital lessons we learned from our holiday nightmare

A split second was all it took for Louise McBride's family holiday to turn from joy into horror. Here she tells how the ordeal has given her a new appreciation of life

Thankful: Louise with her children
Thankful: Louise with her children
Louise McBride

Louise McBride

It was the morning of the World Cup soccer final. My family and I had just arrived in France for our long-awaited two-week holiday. Within 20 minutes of leaving Roscoff ferry port we were almost killed in a horrific car accident. The driver who hit us - a young French woman - had fallen asleep at the wheel.

When the driver hit us, it felt like a jumbo jet had rammed into our car. The driver didn't brake initially and this made things even worse for us. Our car was forced into a crash barrier before it rolled on the motorway then spun on its roof before stopping.

We were all hanging upside down in the car. I remember my children screaming in the back. The taste and smell of the chemicals from the airbags. The smell of burning rubber. And then the complete panic that at least one of us could be returning to Ireland in a coffin.

I could hear the screams of my two youngest children - three-year-old Emilia and six-year-old Kelan - so I knew they were alive.

However, I couldn't hear anything from my eldest child - eight-year-old Lara. Neither could I turn my head around to check on her.

"Lara?" I asked, in trepidation. "Are you okay?" No response. Horror set into the pit of my stomach. "Lara?" Then, much to my relief, I heard a meek, "Yes, I'm okay."

The wreck of the Honda, written off just 20 minutes after the family drove off the ferry at the beginning of their French adventure
The wreck of the Honda, written off just 20 minutes after the family drove off the ferry at the beginning of their French adventure

Then began the rush and panic of getting everyone out of the car. We were in the middle of a motorway. Any car coming at speed would be the end of us.

My husband Stephen was the first out of the car. He grabbed Emilia. I was next, followed by Lara. At that stage the car had started to leak and we feared it was about to burst into flames.

Kelan was still in the car as we initially couldn't open his door. My husband, however, managed to wrench it open and we got Kelan out. I remember the gush of relief that we had all got out the car in one piece.

Passers-by, who had stopped, guided my children and I past the crash barrier and off the motorway. My husband somehow managed to get most of the baggage.

Somehow, despite the horror and shock of the event, he even managed to grab the dashcam from the front of the car.

In a traumatic event like this it's the small details you remember. In particular, I remember holding my hysterical three-year-old at the side of the motorway. Her nose was running. "Tissue, Mammy, tissue," she cried. I had a tissue in my pocket and wiped her little nose with it - which thankfully gave her some comfort.

I remember staring in disbelief at our complete write-off of a car. The car we had so meticulously packed for our holiday and which we had been relying on to take us around France was now an overturned piece of silver wreckage on a motorway. That car would soon be taken away by a tow truck and written off.

The police - the gendarmes - weren't long before they were on the scene. The first thing they did was ask who was driving our car. I informed them it was my husband. The gendarmes then breathalysed my husband and asked him at what speed he was driving.

I remember the rage I felt at what I took to be a presumption that it was us, as Irish people just off the ferry, who had caused the crash. My husband hadn't drunk alcohol in weeks - and he was driving below the speed limit.

A gendarme asked my husband if he had lost control of the car. My husband quickly explained it was the young girl behind us who had hit our car and caused us to overturn.

One of the gendarmes took our insurance cert and my husband's driving licence. He asked for our Vehicle Registration Cert - the document which proves ownership of a vehicle. In our shell-shocked state we couldn't find the VRC or remember that we had put it in our luggage. The gendarme persisted in looking for it. I suggested that perhaps we had left the VRC at home. I remember the glare he gave me when I said this. And the rage I felt afterwards.

Through no fault of our own, my family and I had almost been killed - yet all this gendarme was concerned about was paperwork.

When you have gone through a traumatic experience like this, you expect that it can't get any worse. You expect to be looked after and to be treated with compassion. While we did get some genuine compassion from passers-by, including a young Irish woman who was also just off the car ferry with her family, I felt there was a distinct lack of compassion from one of the gendarmes.

Perhaps this was due to the language barrier - I have some French but not enough to deal with an accident like this. The gendarmes we dealt with had very little English.

The gendarmes offered to take us to hospital. In my shocked and distraught state I declined, suggesting we go to hospital the next day instead. I simply didn't think we had the strength, after our ordeal, to sit in a foreign hospital for hours awaiting treatment.

I was worried about our luggage - and the things I needed to get out of the car if we were to continue our journey. I also wanted to try to bring a bit of normality back to the day for myself and my incredibly upset family.

I asked the gendarmes if they would take us to Carnac - our destination for the first week of our holiday. No chance: Carnac was a two-hour drive away. I naively expected that we'd be brought to some kind of safe haven at that stage so we could get a chance to catch our breath and recover from our ordeal.

Instead, the gendarmes dropped us off at the garage of the tow-truck driver. They unloaded our baggage, asked if we had assistance and hung around while we tried to get it.

I couldn't believe that after all my family had been through we were being left outside a garage in the middle of nowhere to fend for ourselves and arrange our own help. In my shocked state, I could hardly even manage to type the numbers into my phone to call someone.

The trouble with having a car accident on a Sunday morning in France is that you're unlikely to get through to your car insurer for help. I rang our insurer's Dublin office only to find it was closed until Monday morning.

We tried to call our insurer's overseas emergency numbers. We spent more than an hour trying to get someone who could help us. In the end, the best our insurer's overseas emergency team could do for us on that Sunday was to advise us to arrange a taxi to a nearby hotel.

We didn't have a clue where we were - or what hotels were nearby - but a quick Google map search showed us that we were near the city of Morlaix.

We found the number of the Hotel de l'Europe there and asked the hotel to send a taxi to collect us. The gendarmes had left at this stage but the tow-truck driver spoke to the hotel and gave directions to the garage. I remember the relief of seeing the taxi arrive to pick us up and the joy of checking into a comfortable hotel room - far from the carnage on the motorway which we had just experienced.

I started to come to my senses that evening and realised we should really have gone to hospital. But try getting a taxi to hospital after France has just won the World Cup final. The roads around us were all closed due to festivities - so we couldn't get a taxi. My husband and I decided that the best thing at that stage was for us all to rest and to go to hospital the next morning.

We spent the entire next day in hospital - the Centre Hospitalier des Pay de Morlaix. I cannot speak more highly of the team there. Unlike the emergency departments of many Irish hospitals, we were seen to the minute we arrived.

I had thankfully packed our European Health Insurance cards so we were fully covered for the cost of the treatment we received, including X-rays.

The scariest part of that day was when the doctor examining us expressed concern that my eldest might have an internal bleed. At that stage I cursed myself for delaying the trip to hospital. Thankfully, a series of detailed checks - including MRIs - found that no internal bleed was present. All the same, my husband and I were advised to keep a good eye on our daughter and to be on the alert for any change in behaviour.

Then came the next challenge. My husband had to go to the station of the gendarmes to sign a statement about the accident. Needless to say, this wasn't a trip he was looking forward to.

As my children and I were still being seen to in hospital, my husband - who has no French whatsoever - had to make this trip on his own.

Thankfully, Patsy in the Irish embassy in Paris had come to our aid at that stage. Patsy, who is fluent in French, was on standby on the phone and she talked my husband through the French statement he was being asked to sign so that he wouldn't sign something he didn't understand - and potentially put himself in the frame. She even spoke to the gendarme on our behalf. We learned at this stage that the French driver had accepted full liability for the crash.

My family and I simply could not have got through this ordeal without the help of Patsy - as well as her colleague Peter - in the Irish embassy in Paris. When you're in an accident like this abroad all you want is for someone to lift you up and take you home.

In our weakened, shocked and injured state, we were simply unable to deal with the consequences of a road-traffic accident in a foreign country, far from family and friends, and where we had little of the local language. Thankfully, the Irish embassy gave us step-by-step advice on how we could get through it.

We checked out of hospital later that day. The doctor advised us to continue with our holiday rather than to go home. He said it would be good for the children after what they had been through.

So, despite the trepidation of getting into a car again, and the ordeal of getting a replacement car abroad (courtesy cars from your insurer don't come that easy when you're abroad), we continued with our holiday.

It was the right thing for the kids. My children were badly traumatised but I could see recovery set in as the holiday progressed - particularly after we arrived at our gite in Normandy.

We got the ferry back to Ireland in late July - as foot passengers this time - and minus the Honda CRV which had ultimately saved our lives.

The staff of Brittany Ferries in Roscoff and Ringaskiddy were amazing. The compassion and kindness we got from them in Cork meant so much to us.

My parents and brother collected us from Ringaskiddy port. I'll never forget the joy of seeing them - and of stepping on to Irish soil again.

I'll never return to France again. I will never go on a driving holiday abroad again. I'm not even sure if I will even holiday abroad again.

The accident was an incredibly traumatic event for myself and my family and that trauma will probably always be with us in some way.

I have, however, learned some invaluable lessons. I have a new understanding of the terms 'speed kills' and 'fatigue kills'.

I now firmly believe the speed limits on motorways are too high and need to be reduced. It only takes a matter of seconds for something to go wrong on the road - and the faster you, or other cars, are going, the greater the chance of death or serious injury.

I have learned how incredibly important it is to have your children safely strapped into car seats - these seats played a big part in saving my children's lives.

I have realised how important it is to drive a car with a high safety record. My husband is a stickler for researching the safety record of a car before he buys one - and he is right.

I have a new perspective on life. Witnesses to the crash said it was a miracle we were all alive. I will never take my kids for granted again - not that I ever did - but until this accident happened I never for one second believed that I might outlive one of them. I have learned not to sweat over the small stuff. I have learned to appreciate the simple things in life. Like my three-year-old's crazy dances around the kitchen. Or the way my son stands in goal with his hands in his pockets at GAA practice. Or the silly jokes my eldest daughter quotes from her Roald Dahl book. Or the sight of my children sleeping peacefully in their beds at night.

I realise how lucky I am to still have my husband by my side - and not to be facing the rest of my life without him. I realise too how lucky our children are, not to be facing the rest of their lives without one of their parents.

I have learned how short life can potentially be. But more than anything, I have learned how precious life is. Life isn't perfect but, as they say in France, la vie est belle. I hope to make the most of it from here on.

Sunday Independent

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