Polmont rail disaster survivors recall the day their lives changed forever

EVEN the birds didn't sing for days afterwards ... the abiding memory of one old man who played his part in the rescue operation after the Polmont rail disaster.

Recalling events following the terrible tragedy of 25 years ago, Peter Johnstone, now 72, spoke of his sadness for the 13 people who lost their lives in a rush-hour train crash.

Few in the area will forget July 30, 1984 when the high-speed Edinburgh-Glasgow train hit a cow which had wandered on to the line, causing the front coaches to leave the track with horrifying results. But for those who were involved or witnessed the aftermath, memories of that evening will be with them forever.

As a massive rescue operation swung into operation, Mr Johnstone, who ran The Answer pub in Reddingmuirhead, was asked to throw open its doors as a refuge for the walking wounded. Eventually 150 passengers from the 5.30 p.m. service were in his function suite, being given tea, coffee and comforting words from his staff and other locals who had come to help.

Although he didn't see the terrible scene of carnage, the publican clearly remembers the days that followed. "There was an eerie silence hanging over the whole place. For three days after the birds didn't sing, it was all just quiet," he said.

Twisted rails, damaged carriages and personal belongings, including suitcases and clothing, littered the track, a grim reminder of what occurred on that fateful Monday evening.

But the human cost of the disaster, later to be blamed on vandals who had broken down a fence allowing the cow to get on the track, was greater. Of the 13 who lost their lives, the eldest was 64, four were in their 20s, one was a 19-year-old Dutch tourist and the youngest just nine years old.

Tears filled Peter Johnstone's eyes as he remembered little Alison Hogg, who was on holiday from Kenya, when she and her mother Jane (39) became victims of the crash.

A further 61 passengers were injured, many seriously.

Last Thursday, a quarter of a century after the disaster, relatives of the dead joined survivors, local people and representatives from the emergency services at a memorial service to unveil a plaque to mark the anniversary.

Survivor June Wyper (55) found it hard to believe it was 25 years since she was caught up in the tragedy.

Now the manager of Grangemouth Enterprise Centre, at the time she was a personal assistant at the TSB bank in Edinburgh.

She said: "I always tried to get on the same carriage and sit in the same seat, so that when the train stopped at Falkirk High, I could get off right at the exit stairs. Sitting there probably saved me because the people on the other side of the aisle were injured and there were some fatalities in the carriage.

"I was getting ready to get off when the crash occurred. At first, everyone worried that the train was going to go on fire but thankfully that didn't happen. When you realised you were okay, you just tried to help those less fortunate."

June was trapped on the train for two hours before finally being freed, then she helped provide aid to others and remembers using her Aran cardigan as a pillow for someone lying at the side of the track with a terrible head injury.

She added: "I was off work about a month and when I went back it was really difficult to travel by train at first. My boss had a girl from

Shieldhill travel with me, but I used to get on at Falkirk then have to get off at the next stop. It took a while to build up my confidence again but now I love train travel."

Fellow passenger Colin McCallum (39) was not so lucky.

The Edinburgh University employee with a PhD in physics was on his usual train home but sadly lost his life. Cousin Anita Rothermel from Kent remembers her father learning of the rail crash and contacting his sister, Colin's mum, to hear if he was involved.

Although they weren't unduly concerned at first, thinking he was on a later train which had been held up, as time wore on and there was no news, their fears grew.

Eventually an emergency number was given for those worried about relatives and the family discovered Colin was one of the victims.

Anita said: "Thirteen lives were lost and countless others affected for life because of some senseless prank. Whoever did this has lived 25 more years than my cousin was given the chance to, but I am sure that their conscience has reminded them constantly of what they are responsible for."

Another cousin, Bill Pye from Eaglesham, attended last week's service. He said: "My aunt was a widow and Colin her only son. She was never the same after that: the joy had gone out of her life."

First on the scene after the crash occurred at 5.55 p.m. were employees of Brighter Trailer Services at Redding Industrial Estate.

Disorientated survivor Ramsay Shields (24) from East Kilbride had staggered through their door to look for help.

Business owners Margaret (77) and Jim (80) Munro recalled sending their workers and two young sons, William, then 19, and Graham, just 16, to help with the injured.

Mrs Munro said: "My husband phoned for help and they sent the emergency services to Polmont railway station but when the local policeman heard he'd made the call, he was able to tell them where the crash actually was.

"By the time they got there, we'd started to help people out. I went down but couldn't jump down the banking so went back to make tea. We were there until about midnight helping in what way we could.

"It was a terrible time and something you would never forget."