Medical help on hand in minutes

 

Mary Coughlan was matron in Mallow General Hospital at the time of the disaster, writes Barry Roche.

A now sprightly octogenarian, Mary, who had trained in London during the Blitz, has many vivid memories of that day in 1980 but her abiding recollection is how smoothly the emergency plan went.

"Everything went so well - there was no panic," she recalled and recounted how several factors helped the emergency services. One team of surgeons had not yet finished and another was preparing to come on duty.

Mallow general had set up a cross-matching blood bank a few days earlier and had 50 pints of blood in stock ready for transfusion to the more seriously injured patients.

That Irish Helicopter pilots Allan Mutton and Keith Greenwood were flying overhead at the time, spotted the disaster, landed and began ferrying some of the injured to Cork Regional Hospital almost 30 miles away was also a huge boon.

Consultant Peter Gaffney went to the scene with a team of nurses, including Myra Fitzpatrick who had been stopped at the level crossing, and began triage there with the first patients arriving at the 98-bed hospital within 20 minutes, recalls Ms Coughlan.

As a temporary morgue was set up at Buttevant railway station, assistance began flooding in from all quarters - off-duty nurses came back on duty, nurses from nearby Mount Alvernia and Heatherside hospitals turned up and local GPs raced to the scene.

"The first hour is the survival hour - it's as simple as that and bringing them to Cork Regional Hospital by road would have meant many of the critically injured would have died - remember it was the old Mallow Road with 108 bends all the way to Cork.

"Instead, Mallow became the clearing station. Patients were brought into us, they were resuscitated, they were given blood and oxygen, they were put on drips. The most distressed were those with chest injuries whose lungs had collapsed.

"But everybody mucked in. Staff who were off duty came back on and when we ran out of beds, patients with long limb fractures and abrasions just got up out of their beds and sat on chairs and said 'use my bed'.

"People were extraordinary," she recalled.

Some indication of the success of the emergency operation and the quality of medical treatment can be gauged from the fact that while 16 died at the scene and one other on the way to hospital, only one of the remaining eight who were critical lost their fight for life.