AT 9am on May 27, 1975, a yellow Bedford coach full of 45 happy elderly women left Thornaby on an “Auntie Dorrie mystery trip” into the Yorkshire Dales.

The outing had been arranged by Dorothy White, a former mayoress of Thornaby, and their itinerary had taken them to Ripon and Knaresborough before they headed towards Grassington.

But, as the coach neared the village of Hebden on the B6265, it encountered a mile-long descent down the one-in-six Fancarl Hill.

And the brakes failed.

With the driver shouting “the brakes have gone, the brakes have gone”, the vehicle rapidly gathered pace, tearing out of control until it hit the parapet of the Devil’s Bridge. It toppled over and fell 16ft into the ravine below, landing on its roof.

The eight-year-old coach had aluminium sides and a fibreglass roof. Perhaps the biggest story wasn’t the headline figure that 32 ladies and the driver died but that 13 miraculously survived.

The Northern Echo:

The scene of the Dibbles Bridge crash. Picture courtesy of Nidderdale Museum

The emergency services received the first calls for help at 3.37pm.

One of the first ambulanceman on the scene, David Rhodes, 29, recalled the silence that greeted him.

He said: “It was a shocking sight. All we could see from the road was the underneath of the bus. There were no noises from the wreck.

“We thought at first there was nobody there to make a noise. Then I saw three or four people outside on the grass. They were conscious. Inside the coach, one or two of the old ladies complained that they had difficulty in breathing. They were puzzled and confused.

“Some were in a shocking state, trapped between the seats. Things had fallen from the racks all round them. It was a jumble of bodies.”

Those who had survived were shocked into silence; nearly all of the dead had died instantaneously.

The Northern Echo, which was a broadsheet newspaper in those days, devoted its whole front page to “the horror of Devil’s Bridge” (below).

The Northern Echo: The Northern Echo's broadsheet front page from May 28, 1975, was devoted to the crash at Devil's Bridge

“The coach had been taking a popular scenic route and the victims of the tragedy were among tens of thousands of sightseers who crowded the sunlit lanes of the Yorkshire Dales yesterday,” it said.

“Police, fire and ambulance teams had to jack up the tangled bodywork of the coach with stones while they freed passengers from seats that had been smashed into the roof by the force of the crash.”

Ambulance driver Brian Robertshaw, 28, told its reporter: “It was the worst thing I have ever had to deal with as an ambulance man. I hope I never see its like again. All you could see were arms, legs and bodies, topsy turvy in the shattered coach.”

The Northern Echo: Dibbles bridge

The coach lying 16ft beneath Devil's Bridge, on its roof

For three hours the emergency service worked cutting the dead and the dying out of the wreckage, and a fleet of ambulances took the injured and the bodies to Airedale Hospital in Keighley.

The driver, Roger Marriott, was among the dead. He lived in the same terraced streets in Thornaby as most of his passengers, and the bus company, Riley, a family firm, was also based locally.

Auntie Dorrie, 62, also died. A widow, she had been mayoress in 1962, and was widely respected for her charity work, her children’s playgroup, and her old folks outings.

But such tributes could have been said about all of the women, who were mostly in the sixties.

“Nearly everybody in Thornaby lost a friend last night,” said the Echo’s reporter on the streets of the town, Mike Amos.

The Northern Echo: Dibbles bridge

Retrieving the wreckage of the coach the following day

The inquest into the deaths was held in July 1975. It heard that although the brakes had been serviced just a week before, at least one brake had been defective. Expert investigators found several other major defects on the coach, and one investigator said it was an “astounding coincidence” that they had all happened at the same time.

The jury took just 50 minutes to reach a unanimous verdict that the victims had died as a result of an accident “caused by the inability of the driver to negotiate the bend at the bridge owning to deficient brakes, due a possible lack of care in the maintenance of the braking system”.

The proprietor of the coach company, Norman Riley, was later fined £75 for operating a motor with defective brakes.

Even before the crash there had been a campaign to have electro-magnetic retarders fitted to all coaches as an auxiliary braking system. The accident at Devil’s Bridge gave greater prominence to the campaign, especially when a trial orchestrated by the Yorkshire Post newspaper proved that the system would have slowed the runaway coach, perhaps to a manageable speed.

The 1970s were a desperately dangerous time to be on the roads, as the vehicles, which didn’t have safety features like seatbelts – often crumpled and broke up on impact. A couple of days before the accident, the Echo’s front page story had been about seven people being killed on North East roads in separate incidents; a couple of days after the crash, it reported how Bay City Roller star Les McKeown had been in a road accident in which a 76-year-old woman had died.

Coaches were especially dangerous. The Echo told how 70 bus passengers had been killed on North East roads in the previous six years, with the disaster at Crawleyside bank above Stanhope in August 1969 accounting for 19 lives.

The Northern Echo: Crash site of fatal accident in which a cyclist was killed.

Devil’s Bridge (above) still stands. It is known locally as Dibbles Bridge, which rolls the name of the river – Dibb – that it crosses in with the lengend that the devil himself is said to have built it for shoemaker Ralph Calvert, who had offered him a drink of water.

The bridge lives up to its name. On June 10, 1925, a charabanc from York toppled over its parapet at the exact spot where the 1975 accident occurred, and six people were killed. A cyclist died in an accident on the bridge only in April, meaning 43 people have lost their lives there since 1925.

Despite that figure, road safety in general has improved immeasurably since 1975 so that the Dibbles Bridge accident still has a place in British history.

The coroner, James Turnbull, at the end of the inquest said: “This has been described as Britain’s worst motor disaster. If it is true, let us all hope that it always retains that title.”

Nearly 50 years on, it does retain that title, and today in Thornaby the victims were properly remembered when a monument was dedicated to them.

The Northern Echo: Work taking place on the memorial outside Thornaby Town Hall

A stonemason works on the memorial outside Thornaby Town Hall