Wednesday 18 July 2018

The rural town that can never forget Irish rails' darkest day

'His calls for help stopped and he released his grip... I was too late'. We talk to local people who were in Buttevant 35 years ago today when the Dublin-Cork train crashed

Mary O'Donoghue and Terri O'Gorman pictured at the former Buttevant train station, Co Cork. Pic Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision
Mary O'Donoghue and Terri O'Gorman pictured at the former Buttevant train station, Co Cork. Pic Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision
Terri O'Gorman pictured by a memorial plaque at Buttevant train station, Co Cork. Pic Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision
Wreckage: The aftermath of the disaster in 1988

Graham Clifford

Amid the screeching sound of crushed metal panels and smoking debris being pulled off the dead and injured, Bernie Cullen heard a faint cry for help.

"A man was calling 'help me, help me', it was almost a whisper, but I followed the voice. I lifted some debris, knelt down and found a hand reaching out. I held onto it trying to reassure the person buried, all I could see was this hand. After a short time though the calls for help stopped and he released his grip. I was too late," says Bernie Cullen, a former nurse who was one of the first on the scene of the Buttevant Rail disaster 35 years ago today.

On August 1, 1980 at 12.45 in the afternoon the 10am Dublin to Cork express train entered Buttevant station carrying 230 bank holiday passengers.

Holiday-makers looking forward to a long weekend were in high spirits, others were simply on their way home. Outside the windows the sun illuminated the gently rolling Cork hills.

Suddenly the train, which was travelling at around 60 miles per hour, was diverted off the main line across a temporary set of points into a siding.

The carriages immediately behind the engine jack-knifed and were thrown across four sets of rail line. Inside the carriages passengers flew through the air.

Two coaches and the dining car were totally demolished by the impact. Within a few hours it was confirmed that 18 people, including two of the rail staff on board, were dead. As many as 70 were injured, eight critically.

The passengers who were most severely injured or killed were seated in coaches with wooden frames.

It would become Ireland's worst-ever rail disaster.

Survivors spoke of an eerie silence in the seconds after the crash… before the screaming began and a chaotic rescue operation swung into action.

"Local men working in their fields stopped what they were doing and rushed to see if they could help. They couldn't believe what they saw on the tracks when they got there, sheer devastation. Even some of the gardaí who first arrived on the scene were physically sick," says local woman Mary O'Donoghue.

She added: "Those living in the local houses opened them to the survivors. They comforted them, fed them and let them use their telephones to ring their families."

Within minutes of the crash GPs rushed to the scene - "a woman who'd worked with the Red Cross had her spuds on and dropped what she was doing to go. Local men with cranes brought them to lift the carriages, anyone who could help made their way to the station", says Terri O'Gorman who was involved in a commemoration committee which erected a memorial, made at the Irish Rail depot in Inchicore, for the 25th anniversary.

Until then there was nothing at the site to mark what had happened.

"Not even a plaque," said one local woman.

"It was if it never happened. It felt like the tragedy had been brushed under the carpet.

"When the memorial was erected in 2005 younger generations were shocked when they heard the full extent of what occurred here all those years ago. What happened here should never be forgotten."

Helicopter pilots Allan Mutton and Keith Greenwood were passing overhead on their way to Galway using the train line as a navigational tool.

When they looked down and spotted the disaster they landed and began ferrying some of the injured to Cork Regional Hospital. Without their quick thinking it's estimated more people would have died.

At nearby Mallow Hospital the ambulances started to arrive one after the other. Of the 18 fatalities 17 died at the scene of the crash.

In Cork City Moyra Woodworth was working in her beauty business when she heard of the disaster.

Her husband Bruce had kissed her goodbye and left home the previous morning to go to work at the Irish Industrial gases company in nearby Little Island.

"He drove to work and was due to drive onto Wexford that day for a meeting, stay overnight there and drive back the next day. We had dinner booked in a restaurant on the Friday night and he was eager to be back for that," recalls Moyra.

But unbeknownst to her Bruce took a lift from a colleague who was also driving to Wexford. On the day of the crash Bruce's workmate dropped him off at Limerick Junction station so he could return to Cork by rail.

"As far as I knew Bruce was miles away and not even on a train but as that Friday afternoon dragged on I became concerned. I rang his workplace and they said Bruce may have been on the train that crashed in Buttevant. I went into a spin but couldn't get any information," says Moyra.

Within minutes of boarding the train in Limerick Junction Bruce (36) was killed in the disaster.

"I had a sister working in the lab at the Regional Hospital. She rang to tell me to go there as I was needed to identify Bruce's remains. I turned to stone," she says.

Just five months before Bruce and Moyra had to deal with the news that their three-year-old daughter Corinne was diagnosed with autism. Like all those who lost loved ones Moyra was not offered any counselling following the tragedy.

A CIE investigation concluded that "procedures drawn up locally to cover the operation of the points and the control of movements over them were inadequate and were not in compliance with relevant CIE rules. The lapse of time in connecting them to the Signal Cabin was inexplicable".

The residents of Buttevant felt aggrieved at the findings with one man telling me this week that "those findings made scapegoats of the local men who worked up there."

Eleven of the fatalities in the disaster were Irish, three were English, two American and two Austrian.

The teenage sons of Austrian couple Albin and Maria Ann Zeiner revisited Buttevant in the years following their parents' deaths and presented a train lantern to the local Church.

Every day a candle is lit in the lantern to remember all the victims and as a reminder of the darkest of days in the history of Irish rail travel.

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