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Retired firefighter Billy recalls Buttevant rail disaster 40 years on

'I will never forget the sight that day... it was utter carnage. My initial reaction was pure shock'

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Some of the twisted wreckage in the aftermath of the 1980 disaster

Some of the twisted wreckage in the aftermath of the 1980 disaster

An aerial view of the debris strewn crash scene at Buttevant rail station

An aerial view of the debris strewn crash scene at Buttevant rail station

On August 1,2005, on the 35th anniversary of the tragedy, a bronze sculpture was unveiled at Buttevant Railway Station in the shape of two crossing train tracks alongside another plaque commemorating the names of those who died

On August 1,2005, on the 35th anniversary of the tragedy, a bronze sculpture was unveiled at Buttevant Railway Station in the shape of two crossing train tracks alongside another plaque commemorating the names of those who died

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Some of the twisted wreckage in the aftermath of the 1980 disaster

This weekend marks the 40th anniversary of the Buttevant rail crash, the worst railway disaster in the history of the State that cost the lives of 18 people and left more than 70 others seriously injured.

Shortly after 12.30pm on August 1, 1980, the 10am Dublin-Cork express train approached the North Cork station, with some 230 passengers on board. Many of them were looking forward to a welcome Bank-Holiday break away, while others were returning home for the long weekend .

At 12.45pm as the train entered the station travelling at more than 60 miles per hour it was diverted off the main line and ploughed into a siding where it hit a stationary ballast train. 

The carriages immediately behind the engine and the goods wagon jackknifed and were thrown across four sets of rail-line. Two wooden framed coaches and the dining car of the express train were totally demolished by the devastating impact.

The passengers that were killed or suffered the most severe injuries were seated in the coaches with the wooden frames. Shocked passengers further down the train were able to walk away with just minor injuries.

The resultant carnage at the scene sparked the biggest civil emergency operation in Cork's history and led to a massive review of rail safety.

Rail links between Cork and Dublin were closed for weeks - and emergency officials admitted that it was incredible the death toll stopped at 18, such was the sheer devastation at the accident scene.

One of the first people to witness the carnage in the aftermath of the disaster was the then Mallow-based fireman Billy Mangan, a crew member on the first appliance to arrive at the scene. 

Forty years on, the scene of "utter devastation" that met Mr Mangan and the other emergency service personnel tasked to the scene remains indelibly imprinted in his mind. 

"To be honest none of us really knew what to expect when we got the call. All that we knew was that a major incident had taken place at Buttevant train station and there were a number of casualties," he recalled. 

Mr Mangan, who served with the Mallow unit for 35 years prior to his retirement 10 years ago, said nothing could have possibly prepared him and his colleagues for the horrific sight they met when they arrived at the station. 

"It was utter carnage. Some of the rail carriages had been completely destroyed by the force of the collision and others were upside down or resting on their sides. As a firefighter you understand that you can be tasked to major incidents, that is just part of the job. But, I will never forget the sight that met us that day," he said. 

"You simply do not expect this kind of thing to happen in a quiet, rural town like Buttevant on a beautiful bank-holiday afternoon. So, your initial reaction is just one of pure shock".

Mr Mangan vividly recalled seeing lifeless bodies on the trackside, the injured, and hearing the desperate screams of those trapped in the mangled wreckage. 

"Instantly, your training kicks in. Our first job was to ensure the wreckage was stable enough for us to go in and try to free those trapped. Once we had done that, the rescue operation swung into full gear and we helped get out as many people as we could," he said.

"The sight of those people who had sadly lost their lives in the crash being taken to a temporary morgue that had been set up in a disused building in the station is something that will always live with me." 

Mr Mangan said that were it not for the combined efforts of emergency service personnel, Civil Defence and the Red Cross, he had no doubt that the death toll from the disaster would have been much higher. 

"We all knew what was required of us and everyone who was there on that day played their part. As I recall an Aer Arann helicopter happened to be flying overhead in the aftermath of the crash and was able to airlift injured people to the Regional Hospital in Cork. It made several trips that saved lives, I am firmly convinced of that," he said. 

"Mallow Hospital also played a key roll in the whole rescue and recovery operation. Staff from the hospital attended the scene and many of the injured were ferried to the hospital by ambulance for treatment. The staff were outstanding." 

Mr Mangan said that back then there was no such thing as counselling for emergency service personnel that had been tasked to the scene of a major incident. 

"These days it would be protocol for people to receive some form of trauma counselling. Back then, you simply got on with the job and tried to control your emotions and responses as best you could," he said. 

"While the harrowing memories of that day will always remain with me, so will the sense of pride in the way that so many people, from locals in Buttevant to all the emergency services responded to the disaster. Lessons were learned from the events of that fateful day that will hopefully ensure nothing like this ever happens again in Ireland."

Corkman