After the Crash: everybody needs to watch this heartbreaking film

RTÉ documentary detailed a litany of pain left behind in wake of lives cut short

Trailer for RTE's After The Crash, an insight into how road deaths affect family, friends and communities. Showing on the 8th February. Video: RTE


The banality of tragedy and how we remember is what made After The Crash, RTÉ television’s documentary on the people who died on Ireland’s roads in 2016 and the effect their deaths had on those they left behind, such a powerful piece of broadcast journalism.

It should be compulsory viewing for every learner driver and everyone who applies to renew their licence. It should be shown in secondary schools everywhere and discussed afterwards, aided by input from parents, teachers, local gardaí and, if they were willing, people who have lost loved ones on the roads.

RTÉ would also perform a notable service to the nation were they to send a copy, quietly through the post with maybe a little note – “In case you missed it. . .” – to every judge in the State, especially those at district and circuit court level, as well as to that small coterie of amoral lawyers who have made a career out of thwarting the application of the law when it comes to road traffic offences.

It should be viewed by drivers who jump traffic lights and those who persist in using mobile phones (and who are therefore four times more likely to be involved in a crash).

One of the reasons After The Crash was so powerful was the way it was made. The list of names, white on black background, rolling through each month of 2016 to a soundtrack of cascading piano notes – on and on and on and, at the end, a reminder that the 188 corpses from 2016 had been joined at the close of last month by 15 more.

The ordinariness of the settings in which people told their stories – kitchens, livingrooms, bedrooms, gardens – the places now otherwise silent, save for the sobbing from those recalling the person whose life and chatter used to fill what is now a void. So too the trinkets of lives remembered – snapshot photos, football team colours, favourite clothes or pieces of jewellery.

Of course, there was no need for dramatics and full marks to producers Sean Mac Giolla Phádraig and Niamh O’Connor, and director Aifric Ní Chianáin for realising that. The stories, researched by Anita Ward, needed no embellishment.

Everyone who helped make this programme must have found it emotionally taxing, to put it mildly. Having ploughed a similar furrow in the Irish Times (Anatomy of a Car Crash series (December 2014) and Heartbreak over girl who went to shop and never came back (November 16th 2016) I know that.

And the film-makers also found the jaw-dropping aspect that chance can play in such tragedies.

Singer-songwriter Colin Vearncombe – who performed as Black – the first victim profiled in detail, died on January 26th, 2016, when he hit black ice and spun into another vehicle while on his way to Cork Airport. A pilot travelling behind stopped and helped a firefighter, both men doing their best for a man who would die 16 days later.

After the crash and readying his plane for take-off, the pilot is told one passenger has failed to show, a detail of which he thought little until, sometime later, he realised it was Vearncombe.

The pilot later watched YouTube videos of Vearncombe singing and wrote a poem for his widow Camilla Griehsel and her sons, Max and Marius. “Everyone’s got a life,” he wrote, “Thanks for reminding me of that – It’s a wonderful, wonderful life”, a nod to Vearncombe’s best-known musical composition.

Chance for Sabina Collman of Mayo was driving home on February 19th, 2016, and noticing three ambulances going in the opposite direction. Inside one was her dying husband, Russell.

“There’s no words,” she said simply on After The Crash. “It’s horrific.”

No word other than horrific could be applied to the story of Tom and Margaret Kelly of Galway. In July, they lost their daughter Tina, aged 35, and her boy, their grandson, Joey aged 14, when Tina’s car went off the road, hitting a tree and killing them both instantly.

A framed poem by the child, My Horse And Me, sits on Tom and Margaret’s mantelpiece. When he was aged 10, Joey told them he wanted to be a jockey, a vet or a doctor.

“He had such high hopes,” said Margaret.

In Joey’s coffin, his grandparents placed his favourite toy, Tweety Bird, and a torch. “He was afraid of the dark,” said Tom.

Only then do we learn that Joey’s Dad, Tina’s partner, died earlier in a road crash.

“Three from one family,” Tom remarks wistfully.

Actually an entire family lost to road carnage. Tom goes regularly to their now empty house and keeps a light on, expecting Joey to run to greet him like he always did.

Pals Michael Madigan and Andrew Roche of Limerick died in March when, not wearing seats belts, they hit another vehicle near driver Andrew’s home. Andrew’s father, Tommy, reminded viewers what first responders have to endure.

Approaching the scene, he found his son’s shoe. There was carnage all over the place, he recalled. A firefighter approached him.

“You shouldn’t be here,” he told Tommy. “You don’t need to look at this.”

Michael’s brothers, Paul and Gerard, spoke kindly about the man and daughter in the other vehicle in the crash, happy they were alive, and mentioned the inquest into Michael and Andrew’s death, October 27th, 2016.

Their other brother, John, took his own life the day after, depressed and apparently unable to get over Michael’s death.

And so it rolled on: Des and Breda Smyth of Westmeath remembering their daughter Jenna Eve; Dorothy Lynch of Clare recalling her mother Kathleen, comforted by her daughter Jaeda-Rae with her sixth birthday card from her granny, rubbing her mother’s back, comforting her (“I’m fine. I’m fine,” Dorothy said to the child); Dublin cyclist Donna Fox (“kind, soft, loving”, said her brother Neil); and teacher Peter Keohane from Darndale, Dublin, recalling his 13-year-old pupil Lee Henry, knocked down crossing the road – “He had a tremendous future in store for him. He was very ambitious. His plan was to be a judge. He was never one for half measures.”

Through the medium of YouTube and a laptop, After The Crash ends with Colin Vearncombe serenading the grandson he never saw but whose birth he was so looking forward to. His rich voice sings about looking for home.

“It’s still a place I need to be,” he sang. But he never will be again.

Jenna Eve Smyth was placed in her coffin in a favourite dress. “I never thought I’d be coming down to visit my little girl in the graveyard,” said her father Des.

But their five other daughters and son, plus the community in Mullingar, carry them forward.

Grieving mother Breda says she lives in fear.

“I say to young people, think of old Mammy and Daddy when you go out in the car ’cus they’re left with the pain.”

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