THE last living survivor of the one of the region’s most appalling road accidents vividly recalls a trip that ended in disaster – his memories undimmed by the passage of 50 years.

A coachload of members of the veteran bowlers with their wives and friends were on their way home to Blackhall Colliery in a happy mood after winning a friendly match and spending an enjoyable afternoon in Consett.

Suddenly the driver was struggling to keep control as the bus careered down the steep Crawleyside Bank, above Stanhope. Then tragedy struck.

Alan Smith, then 14-years-old, said: “The next I knew I was on all fours surrounded by crash debris looking back at the bus and gasping for breath. One side of the bus appeared to have almost gone.

“I was crawling over what seemed like plywood and broken glass from the windows. There was rubble all around. Self preservation kicked in and I wanted to be away.”

He said: “I only ended up going on the trip, because my grandmother was unwell. I had the choice of going with my parents to visit relatives in Yorkshire, or to go on the bus trip. I heard the bus was going to return on a scenic route via Derwentside Reservoir, which I wanted to see. That is what decided it for me.”

But Mr Smith, 64, of Hartlepool never got to see the reservoir that day.

He said: “The weather conditions were awful. It was foggy and drizzly. The coach driver must have missed the turning and we ended up coming down Crawleyside Bank, which I had never heard of before. I don’t think anyone knew what lay ahead. The bus started to gain speed as we went down. The brakes weren’t slowing it at all.

“It became obvious that we were going too fast. The bus started to lurch and the leather bags with the bowls started falling off the racks. One of them hit me on the head. I was on the aisle and got up to stop them falling down. Someone said ‘he’s lost it’.

“A matter of seconds later we left the road at a sharp angle. And that was when the impact happened. I don’t remember anything else. The next thing I knew I was outside the bus on all fours – badly winded and gasping for breath and saying help.

“I crawled towards the nearest door. A woman and her husband opened it took me inside. I stayed there for the duration of the rescue operation. I honestly I have no idea how I got out of the coach, whether it was through the skylight or the side. I had some minor injuries. Big scrapes across my back. It looked as though I had been whipped. My grandfather, William Smith, 77, who had been sitting at the window, died on impact.”

Mr Smith said his family had shielded him from the enormity of what had happened.

“There was funeral after funeral taking place in Blackhall Colliery. I never attended any. A few weeks later life sort of returned to normal for me, because I had to go back to school. My parents were keen that I got back to normal as soon as possible. I didn’t get time to dwell on it.

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“It’s not something I forgot about. To be honest it caused me a great deal of problems when a memorial service was held ten years ago, because I never got much notice. I got a phone call and remember exactly where I was at the time. I just went cold.

“It had always been something at the back of my mind, but it was not something that was there all the time. It was not something I spoke about. My two sons had not known about it (up until then) and my wife only had a vague idea.

“Attending the memorial service ten years ago gave me the chance to speak to the driver’s wife, who had lost her 12-year-old daughter, to say I was sorry for her loss. Hopefully, I am better prepared for this memorial service."

He added: “The one thing I have been thinking about for the last ten years is what impact it must have had on the people living in those houses that were hit. Because it must have been one hell of a shock having that on their doorstep.

“I would like to belatedly say thank you to the people around Crawleyside who reacted to the accident on that day.”

He added: “The memories of that day will always remain with me. It was a tragic accident. I don’t blame anyone for it.

“It was just a set of circumstances that unfolded. I could easily have been a victim on that day, but escaped unscathed. I’ve been lucky and have had a full career and good health.”