Environmentally aware and interested in fitness, Barbara Gill (49) cycled in Dublin city every day to travel to work.
A lecturer in development education at the city’s teacher training colleges – the Marino Institute of Education, St Patrick’s College Drumcondra, and the Church of Ireland College of Education – she travelled to these by bicycle.
On April 19, 2007, Barbara was cycling to work wearing a hi-vis jacket and a helmet when a skip lorry took an unplanned but catastrophic left turn at Wolfe Tone Quay, near the Aisling Hotel in Dublin.
Barbara’s injuries were extensive – her ribs and vertebrae were damaged, as was one of her lungs, and her liver was badly lacerated.
“It was around 9.30am or 10am when it happened. They brought her into St James’s Hospital straight away and they thought they had her but in the end she was very badly bruised and lacerated inside. She’d been bleeding massively. She had very horrific injuries,” her mother Margaret (79) said.
Later that day at 6pm, Barbara died of her injuries.
Barbara’s partner Ruth said: “I got the phone call and I remember saying to the nurse ‘you’re joking’. Barbara was critical from the word go. When you’re hit by a lorry, you’re not going to be OK.”
“It was a day that was a living nightmare.”
“She fought very hard, and they [the medical teams] fought very hard. There were two surgical teams working on her,” said Ruth.
Margaret added: “The surgeon talked us through everything to explain what had happened and how they couldn’t keep her alive, and that was a big help to us.”
The family’s world fell apart on the day of the accident, and to this day, the family believe that her accident could have been prevented.
The driver unexpectedly turned left and the mirrors on the lorry did not pick up a blind spot. The indicators on the lorry were also defective.
“The skip lorry turned, thought he would get up quicker to where he was going, and he just simply turned to go up and in a second she was under the lorry,” Margaret said.
“[If the driver looked] two seconds in front and two seconds behind, she’d still be with us.”
However, Margaret said: “I forgave the lorry driver totally and utterly.”
“During the court case, at the second last day they said we could speak to him. I went over to him and even though he didn’t have much English I tried to explain to him that we had no blame for him, his life had to go on, he had a partner and baby.”
Barbara’s accident happened only eight weeks after her son Stephen was born. The day before she died, she phoned her mother Margaret and father Bill (84) to wish them well as they were due to fly to Italy to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary.
Barbara told Margaret she had just bathed and fed her son and she was embracing parenthood with her partner Ruth, she told her mother.
“She said 'Mum, I’ve just bathed Stephen and fed him, and I’m the happiest woman in the world’.”
This was the last time Margaret would ever hear her daughter’s voice. Barbara died before Margaret and her husband Bill could return home from Italy.
“She had everything going for her. She was 49 and it was really, really tough. We just live with it every day,” Margaret said.
“Stephen is eight now, he was only eight weeks old when Barbara died. We call him our special grandson, we tell him that.”
Ruth recalls how happy Barbara was when Stephen was born.
“It was the most positive moment when Stephen was born and then the accident happened - the complete opposite. She was so happy – those eight weeks we had together, it was the happiest I’d ever seen her. All she wanted to be was to be a mum.”
“She had photos of our son Stephen in her bag when she died. A couple of days before she died she said ‘I have all these photos of Stephen in my bag and I’m showing them to everyone’. She was the happiest mum ever. Everything had fallen into place. All of our dreams came true when Stephen was born.”
“We had a male friend who assisted, and he’s part of Stephen’s life. When I went into labour, someone said 'isn’t he lucky he's going to have three parents'. She was there for the whole time. She cut the cord and she dressed him in his babygro.”
When Barbara died, Margaret saw from her daughter’s diary how devastated she was during a recent trip to Eritrea in northeastern Africa, where she saw schoolchildren without proper educational materials or a school building. Margaret decided to carry out Barbara’s wish and build a school in her memory.
“The police found her bag and her diary was in it. She had been out in Eritrea, and she said in it that it was very sad that the children were sitting on stones in school and had nothing. She said ‘I’m coming home to run the marathon and get all my friends and we’ll start to build a school if we can at all’.”
“We raised €160,000 and built a very, very good school out in Eritrea. Everyone was so kind and generous financially to us. We actually went out to open it, and it was a huge healing experience.”
“We have since heard that one end of the school is now a secondary school for the girls and the girls would hopefully go to university. This was Barbara’s wish, that the girls go to university.”
“We have to go on and do her wish. Her other wish was that there would be a Yes referendum and I worked very hard on that for her. It was a very emotional day but a wonderful day. I was thrilled for everyone.”
At her home in Offaly, Margaret has many photos and mementos of her daughter.
“You don’t look back. You have to move forward. You either go up or you go down, so we just decided that we have to go up.”
“I do yoga which is a wonderful spiritual faith. I always did a lot of different types of exercise and as my age got on I found yoga was the best for me.”
“She had an amazing lot of friends, ranging from career peers in colleges. We were given two beautiful books when she died, one from the students of Drumcondra and her thoughts about her. And one from her friends and it’s just wonderful. If I get down, I go to the box which has all of the clippings and everything, and I take it out and I know that reading one of them will pick me up.”
“Ruth was generous enough to say that she could be buried here which was very good of her which means that I can visit her grave. We have flowers there, and I water them everyday, and everyday before I go I turn and I say I’m missing you,” she added.
Margaret’s wish is that both drivers and cyclists will be more cautious on Irish roads.
“I don’t think you could be careful or cautious enough. People are going too fast. Everyone’s in a hurry. What are we in a hurry for?”
“We were just out last night and passed a cyclist and he wobbled out and only for we pulled out to avoid him, something would have happened. People have to be very careful.”
“First and foremost, the thing we tried to get when she died was the double mirror on the side of the lorries. I wrote to the transport company about it and they said they would try to bring it into force.”
“That was the reason Barbara was killed.
“Cyclops” mirrors are now required on the front of all larger trucks to help eliminate the problem of blind spots, but last month the chief executive of the Road Safety Authority emphasised that they need to be positioned correctly or drivers wouldn’t be able to detect pedestrians or cyclists in the space immediately in front of the cab.
Margaret and Ruth both hope that Dublin becomes a safer city for cyclists.
“I cycle myself, not a lot now since Barbara died because I wouldn’t want the family to go through another trauma.”
“I find cycle lanes go so far and then they stop dead,” Margaret said. “I don’t know what are you supposed to do then. I often observe them when I go up to Dublin. I observe people all the time, I pass by where she was killed at the turn into the Aisling Hotel.”
“There needs to be a bigger emphasis on pedestrian and cyclists’ safety. Cyclists don’t have priority. You have car drivers talking about cyclists as if they’re one,” said Ruth.
“I know three other people who were hit by lorries, only one survived. Lorries and bicycles don’t mix."