Joe O’Neill knew it took half a mile for a diesel engine pulling a regular complement of carriages to come to a halt from cruising speed, so when he saw a man frantically waving at him to stop a couple of hundred yards from Clogh bridge, he realised tragedy beckoned.
“It was terrible,” he says, recalling the New Year’s Eve catastrophe 40 years ago when the Rosslare-Dublin train went off the rails, costing five lives and injuring more.
The train had left Rosslare at 8.05am, 90 minutes earlier. However, 90 seconds before it was due to pass under Clogh bridge, near Gorey, a tractor carrying a digger on a low-loader accidentally collided with the bridge’s underside, damaging the railway line.
The train derailed, parts of it ending up as a tangled mess. William Hayes (80), from Ardcavan in Wexford, was killed. So, too, were Philomena Moss (50), from Kilmore, Peter Roche (16), from Wexford town, Anthony O'Brien (42), also from Wexford, and off-duty CIÉ employee Richard O'Neill (24), from Dublin.
“The engine was down in the field, upside down,” Joe O’Neill recalls of the seconds following the derailment. “I got out through a little window at the back of me.”
He got “a bang across the back” and spent a couple of days in hospital but otherwise recovered well, apart from the psychological impact of being involved in such an event.
He had applied the brakes and also the emergency brakes upon seeing somebody trying to alert him to the damaged bridge, in a heroic attempt to stop the train, but the distance was too short.
“A man hopped out of a ditch to try and stop me, but it was too late. I was only about 200 yards away from the bridge and that was the first indication I got.”
That man was Christopher Hill, a brother of Roy Hill.
“He ran over the little field and climbed on to the railway track and waved his arms wildly, to indicate to the driver,” Roy remembers now.
After being struck by the road vehicle, the railway line was effectively “suspended in mid-air” but would have looked perfect from the driver’s point of view, 200 yards away.
Roy was aged 28 at the time and driving his tractor on the family farm at Tubberneering, Clogh, when he saw the disaster unfold.
“Suddenly the carriages started to pile up on top of each other. It was like looking at an old western film or something. For a second or two I couldn’t believe my eyes.”
He ran to the wreckage and in the late-December drizzle put his coat around a young woman’s shoulders.
He said the carriages at the front were totally destroyed.
The farmhouse of his parents, Rebecca and Tom Hill, since dead, was close by and a couple dozen survivors - "the walking wounded" - ended up being comforted and given cups of tea.
“I have about half a dozen letters that folk wrote to my mother afterwards, to thank her for her help,” Roy Hill says. “Very touching. Very complimentary to my mother.
“It was no bother to her, she was a countrywoman of a certain time and it didn’t faze her to make a cup of tea for somebody.”
One of the injured was Jim Rowley, 19 at the time who was visiting his extended family in Wexford.
On December 31st, 1975, Jim was on a trip to Dublin with his cousins Miriam and 16-year-old Peter Roche.
“I had my back to the direction of travel. Peter was next to Miriam. It came to a stop and within seconds the carriage had concertinaed and we were crushed up against each other and trapped between the seats and walls of the carriage. It was dreadful,” Jim says. “After the noise and the crashing, there was just silence.”
He and Miriam were injured by the crush, but Peter lost his life.
“Miriam is a nurse and she had just finished her training and started working. She could tell straightaway.”
It was a wrenching loss for Peter’s parents Peter Snr and Rosie, along with the rest of the family.
“He was wonderful,” his cousin remembers. “He was a whirlwind of a lad. He absolutely lived life to the full, he never stopped. He was great to be with.”
David O’Neill from Inchicore, Dublin was only eight when news came that his eldest brother Richard, a CIÉ employee who was off-duty and heading back from Rosslare to Dublin, had been killed in the crash.
A “very outgoing, very likeable,” young man, Richard loved fishing and often took David on fishing expeditions with him, and was proud of his work with the rail company.
“They were very upset at the time, my mam and dad [Nora and James]… It took my mam a while to get over it, like every other mother,” David says.
“When you’re young, you’re not really fully comprehending death.”
In the years that followed, as Joe O’Neill returned to his driving duties as part of a 49-year career with CIÉ, he struck up something of a friendship with Mrs Hill in Clogh and, when on the Dublin-Rosslare line, would sound four or five beeps of the train horn when approaching the Hill homestead.
“My mother would come out and wave her apron and Joe would wave his duster through the window,” Roy says. “That went on for years. Eventually my own children used to do it as well.”
He says what he saw on that wet, sad New Year’s Eve will never leave him. “It’s burned into my mind.”
* A commemoration service is being held by Irish Rail on December 31st, 2015 at the scene of the crash, 5kms from Gorey. It will be attended by survivors and well relatives of those who died.