Not a sound, then the screaming began
On today's 25th anniversaary of the Buttevant rail tragedy, Barry Roche, Southern Correspondent, recalls the crash and the events which led to it.On today's 25th anniversary of the Buttevant rail tragedy, BarryRoche, Southern Correspondent, recalls the crash and the events whichled to it
Local elections had just been held throughout the State, the Moscow Olympics were nearing their conclusion and some 230 passengers were boarding a train at Heuston station, blissfully unaware that they were to be caught up in Ireland's worst rail tragedy of modern times.
For those passengers on that morning of August 1st, 1980, Buttevant in north Cork should have been nothing more than a fleeting glimpse from a speeding train. Instead it was the spot where 18 people were killed and dozens more were scarred for life.
Today is the 25th anniversary of the Buttevant rail disaster and at 12.50pm, a plaque will be unveiled in the Victorian station outside the north Cork town to officially mark the tragedy that claimed the lives of Irish, English, Americans and Austrians.
At 10am on a sunny morning train driver Bertie Walsh from Glanmire in Cork brought the 378-ton Super Express, complete with 11 carriages and spare dining car, out of Heuston station packed with people heading south for the Bank Holiday weekend.
The journey passed uneventfully until, just a quarter of a mile outside Buttevant at 12.40pm, three danger signals suddenly shot up at the side of the track. Walsh immediately applied the emergency brakes and began sounding the warning hooter.
But the train was doing approximately 70mph and, at that speed, needed more than half a mile to stop. The Dublin-Cork train was just 11 seconds from becoming the worst tragedy on Irish railways since the 80 deaths on a Armagh school excursion in 1889.
Ahead, CIÉ worker Willie Joe Condon was frantically trying to free two wooden wedges or scotches jammed in the points on the main line at Buttevant station.
He freed one but was forced to jump from the path of the oncoming train before he could free the other.
The speeding locomotive left the main track when it reached the points and careered into a siding where it collided with a stationary ballast train before the carriages immediately behind the engine jackknifed and ricocheted across three other sets of tracks.
Some people were killed instantly; others suffered terrible injuries and lived for a short time while trapped under the mangled mess of derailed carriages. Amazingly, some walked from the wreckage with relatively minor injuries.
CIÉ employee Derek Fox was aged 17 at the time and was working in the dining car.
"I felt something shake - the next thing we seemed to rise into the air - there was banging and crashing and fierce noise - it seemed it was going on for ages but only lasted seconds.
"I looked around and everything was quiet, so quiet that there wasn't a sound for a couple of seconds and the next thing people started screaming and shouting - people have asked me did I get out through a door or a window but there was actually nothing left.
"I've been told that the guard's van went up in the air, the first-class dining car went into that, the next dining car went into that and we went over the lot of them and that's how I came up looking at the engine which meant I had travelled around 300 feet in the air."
Witnessing the extraordinary impact as he waited at the nearby level crossing was local Cork county councillor Michael Broderick. He rang Mallow General Hospital some seven miles away to set in motion the emergency services operation.
The crash led to a tribunal of inquiry which found the accident was caused by badly set points but the tribunal's report was strong in its criticism of CIÉ management for bad communication with staff, casual supervision and organisational weakness.
Then minister for transport Albert Reynolds set up an inquiry under railway inspecting engineer MJ Feehan and barrister Declan Budd. They published their findings in a 51-page report in May 1981.
Their main conclusion was that the accident occurred because "a set of unconnected facing points on the down mainline at Buttevant were partly or wholly made into the down siding when the 10am ex-Dublin passenger train reached them and the train, travelling at about 65mph, was diverted into the siding and derailed".
The report did not single out any individual directly for blame and the Director of Public Prosecutions did not direct that any charges be brought on foot of the accident. However, it strongly criticised CIÉ on a number of fronts and made a total of eight recommendations.
Among the issues it addressed was the failure of CIÉ's engineering division over a four-month period to connect the points with the signal cabin while it also recommended amending regulations on railway points and improving communications.
The report also recommended increasing refresher courses for personnel, installing two-way radio links between train drivers and mainline controls, and replacing vulnerable timber-bodied coaches with safer all-steel coaches.
They have all been implemented.