Multiple Road Traffic Accident on the M25

1984, Tuesday 11 December: A serious multiple Road Traffic Accident (RTA) on the M25 close to the boundary with Kent; nine people were killed and ten injured.156

One of the worst multiple vehicle accidents the Traffic Department ever had to deal with happened on the M25, near Tatsfield. Twenty-six vehicles and thirty one drivers and passengers were involved. The accident happened in dense fog, which seemed to have descended suddenly, and the scene, in which nine people died. Superintendent Trevor Saunders was in charge of the operation.

Neil Cuzons: I think it was Superintendent Nick Brent, or whoever was the Superintendent at Caterham at the time who was the man in charge. Trevor Saunders was the chief inspector in charge at Godstone traffic centre at the time. This RTA occurred at just before 6 am, PC Tim Page was the first traffic officer at the scene, the weather was heavy fog at the time, the Surrey Constabulary were criticised for not having the motorway fog lights on at the time.

I was working night shift overtime at Caterham (covering the miner's strike at the time) and attended soon after. I spent three full days at the scene, mainly with Nobby Clarke. There was chaos for three to five days on all the surrounding roads due to the motorway closure. I have a feeling the death total was ten.

One of the bizarre recollections was of the two of the larger lorries involved, one carried paper and caught fire, the other was loaded with potatoes, they were still alight until the next day, jumping over the motorway barrier towards it, we landed in about four to six inches of mashed potato. Clackets Lane Services has now been built at the site of this RTA. The accident spot is just on the turn off lane to Clackets services on the Kent to Surrey lane (J5 to J6).

John Milner: The M25 accident was dealt with by Detective Supt Nick Brent - unusual I know but it was considered detective skills were paramount due to the number of vehicles and the number of deaths.

Frank Chivers: I very well remember the major Road Traffic Accident on the M25 at Clackets Lane on 11th December, 1984. I was a Coroner's Officer working from Reigate Police Station at that period in my service. Whilst getting ready for work that morning, I had heard on the radio, a report of a serious RTA on the M25 near Sevenoaks, several vehicles were involved and a number of persons injured.

On arrival at the Police Station just before 8.00 am I was given a message by Sue, the switchboard operator, that in fact the accident was on our ground, Superintendent Saunders was in attendance at the scene and he wanted me there ASAP! Approaching the scene from Godstone, what had been a light mist became thicker and thicker fog and there was an ominous red glow in the sky near Clackets Lane Bridge. The accident was on the clockwise carriageway and almost all the vehicles were burning fiercely.

I was advised by Superintendent Saunders that several of the drivers and their passengers were believed trapped in their vehicles and it was impossible to get to them because of the fire. Surrey Fire Brigade units assisted by Kent appliances, were fighting to control the burning, but because of the fuel spillage from ruptured tanks and the type of loads being carried by some of the vehicles involved - particularly one articulated lorry with a full load of timber and another loaded with rolls and rolls of paper - they were struggling to make an impression.

At the back of the "pile-up" the last vehicle involved, a saloon car, had collided with the rear of an articulated vehicle and gone partly under the trailer. The driver of the car had died from his injuries and this chap was the only person who it was possible to identify by viewing. All the other deceased in the accident had to be identified by the remains of their vehicles, dental and medical records and items of personal property found and not consumed in the fire.

A scene of the accident on the M25

I left the scene around 10.30 pm that evening, having satisfied myself that no other bodies were in the wreckage, going then to the New East Surrey Hospital mortuary to check that all nine bodies had been booked in and correctly labelled. Following which, it was back to Reigate Police Station to check any messages, etc., concerning the accident.

The following day began the long and harrowing task of identifying each body, contacting and talking to relatives, arranging for post-mortem examinations, etc., plus keeping HM Coroner, Lt. Col. McEwan, advised as to how enquiries were progressing.

Many officers were involved in dealing with the accident and its aftermath, not least Superintendent Saunders, Superintendent Nick Brent Caterham Sub Division, who compiled the final report of the accident. Inspector John Bevan and his team from Godstone Traffic Centre worked on the ground, and Inspector Fred Joyce, who ran the enquiry and casualty room at Oxted Police Station.

I have to make mention here of two particular officers:

  • PC Ian King who was the Accident Investigation Officer, and
  • PC Alan "Jock" Pollock Vehicle Examinations Officer.

I know on the day of the accident, Surrey Fire Brigade video recorded the scene and this may still be available in their archives. I served for nine years as Coroner's Officer and although I attended many tragic and horrendous incidents, I will never ever forget the carnage of this accident.

I and my wife, Stella, now live near Oakham in Rutland. Over the intervening years we have occasionally travelled along that section of the M25 and in my minds eye I can still see in all its horror that terrible accident. I shall never forget that awful day.

Nick Brent: I was the Superintendent at Caterham at the time and I dealt with the accident. At the time Superintendent Trevor Saunders was Chief Superintendent Eric Hughes' Deputy and was stationed at Reigate. The person in charge of Godstone Traffic Centre was Chief Inspector John Bevan who retired shortly afterwards. Nine people died I do have a copy of my report photographs and video footage.

Tony Kirton: I was in charge of the Casualty Bureau which had been set up and anything thought to be of a sensitive nature was passed to me. There were two such sad cases:

In the first we were having difficulty in matching up a Ford Escort with two bodies in it. By double checking several times I eventually contacted the scene and asked if it could possibly be a VW Jetta. The car was virtually unrecognisable but after a further examination it was confirmed. The couple in it turned out to be a man and a woman - his wife not knowing about the other woman.

In the other case a very distressed man told me that he had been watching the scene on television and thought one of the lorries in flames might be his. I checked with the scene and they confirmed that there was a lorry as described (number plates melted) and that a male body had been recovered. The only identification was a St. Christopher medallion around his neck. I rang the man back and he insisted on going to the scene to identify the lorry.

He explained that he was very close to the driver, (his Godson), and his wife and child. I spoke to the officer in charge (probably Trevor) and we agreed that it would be helpful if he could identify the lorry. We had to arrange by a series of messages to get him past the police block on the motorway and he eventually arrived. Trevor (I think) rang me to say the lorry was the man's and he was going straight back to tell the driver's wife.

We did a lot of training sessions in the Bureau, some lasting forty eight hours and it was all rather easy-going. How different was the real thing, especially when a match was made and we knew that a phone call to the local police was going to be the start of someone's tragedy.

Tim Page: M25 at Tatsfield on the 11th December 1984, I was with Mark Compsty on nights. We were the motorway vehicle that night and got the call to attend around 0550hrs. The severity of the collision was not given at the time and it was not until we arrived the full picture was gained. I do remember the fog was very, very thick and we attended by driving very slowly on the hard shoulder because of the idiots overtaking us. The night car attended as well, I think the crew was Dennis Edwards and Derek. Sorry forgotten the surname.

Mark Clark: I visited the scene taking video tapes from HQ for the cameraman and then on my way back I was sent to a double fatal on the A25 at Gomshall at the Shere turn where two elderly people were killed. Difficult to get any help! There was also a fatal that day in the north of the county.

Tony Grant: I fortunately didn't attend the scene but I was one of the incident team that was set up the following day to deal with it in an office at Oxted nick. Superintendent Nick Brent was the senior officer, Fred Joyce was the inspector, I was the sergeant and there were a couple of PCs I think one was Dave Thewless and one might have been Paul Wheatley. Two of the traffic officers seconded onto the team were Jock Pollock and Ian King.

I remember hearing the horrific accounts from some of the officers who attended who couldn't free all of the trapped people when the fire started. They were beaten back by the intense heat and had to witness the nightmare of people being engulfed by the flames. That must live with you forever, and I recall the look and feeling of helplessness when speaking to some of the officers afterwards. I can't recall the exact number of vehicles involved, it was something like twenty five to thirty with numerous injured and nine fatal.

We tried to piece together what happened as best we could but it became clear that the real cause was the fog. It's was all very well some saying motorists were travelling too fast for the conditions but from what I can remember the fog was very patchy at the time and then suddenly and before they knew it vehicles were going into a blanket of thick fog.

I really can't recall what started it but I think it was caused by vehicles braking and after the first crash vehicles then just started ploughing straight into the stationary vehicles. That's about it; nobody was prosecuted as a result of the accident. I'm sure you will hear more from someone who attended unless they've managed to erase the nightmare from their memories.

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156 Annual Report 1984.

 

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