Police investigating one of the worst ever British motorway crashes are focusing their inquiry on a nearby fireworks display amid eye witness reports that smoke made driving “impossible”.
The 34-vehicle pile-up, which triggered a giant fireball on the M5 in Somerset, claimed seven lives and left 51 injured on Friday evening.
Three lorry drivers travelling from Cornwall are among those thought to have been killed or seriously injured in the carnage, described by one witness as being “like Afghanistan”.
A woman from Truro is also believed to be among the injured although her condition is not known. Devon and Cornwall Police rushed her family to Musgrove Park Hospital at Taunton to be at her bedside.
Avon and Somerset Police said witnesses had reported “significant smoke” across the carriageway that was “impossible to drive through.”
The probe into what caused the tragedy will be a crime investigation as well as a road policing one, with major crime teams looking into what happened, it was announced.
Assistant Chief Constable Anthony Bangham said: “What I am now able to say this afternoon is that our main line of inquiry has now moved towards the event that was on the side of the carriageway.”
He said while driving conditions were “difficult” and there was fog in the area, witnesses had described “very significant smoke across the carriageway” which was “very distracting and very difficult to drive through”.
Mr Bangham added: “We will be doing everything we can to find out as quickly as we’re able to what’s behind that.”
Witnesses at the fireworks display – held at Taunton Rugby Club – were being interviewed, he said, adding that accountability was “clearly something we will look at”.
He went on: “We believe from the witnesses and from what we’re being told that it was smoke and not fog.
“The vehicles and people who were entering into the smoke bank have just described it as being impossible to drive through and that of course caused them to brake.”
The rugby club, which has now been cordoned off by police, has said previously that its display was over by 8.15pm.
Colin Bentley, a spokesman for Taunton Rugby Club, told reporters the club was supporting the police with inquires.
He said: “Everybody at the club is incredibly upset at the terrible loss of life in the tragedy on the M5. No one could fail to be moved by it. My heart, soul and prayers go out to those affected.”
He added: “I don’t believe the club has done anything improper. Checks and risk assessments were done.
“I am absolutely positive it finished at 8.15pm – I was timing it and it went dark.”
The motorway remained closed in both directions between junctions 24 and 25 throughout the weekend. The accident took place at about 8.25pm on the northbound carriageway.
Photographs of the scene clearly showed the charred remains of a lorry from Ginsters, from Callington in South East Cornwall, amidst the carnage.
Another lorry from Samworth Brothers, which owns the Cornish pasty brand, was also gutted by fierce blazes following a number of explosions on the carriageway.
Three drivers, who were travelling from the company’s depot in Callington when the incident happened on Friday night, are thought to be among those killed or seriously injured.
Former employee Chris Tomlinson tweeted: “God bless my three former colleagues who were injured and killed on Friday in the M5 crash.”
A spokesman for Samworth Brothers haulage added: “We are aware that two Samworth Brothers lorries were involved in the crash.
“One of these was a Ginsters lorry and one was a Samworth Brothers Distribution lorry. For all other enquiries we have been asked to direct people to the police at this time.”
It emerged yesterday that an elderly couple visiting family in Taunton were among the seven killed.
The couple, named as Pamela and Anthony Adams, were returning to Newport, Wales, after visiting their children and grandchildren.
Phil White, the Adams’ son-in-law, confirmed their death but was too heartbroken to comment further.
He wrote on Facebook: “It’s a sad day here in the White house, XMUMX & XDADX, you will always be in our hearts and thoughts.
“Heaven has two more beautiful roses in his heavenly garden. Heaven is now a brighter and wiser place for your presence.
“Lord God above please look after XMUMX & XDADX. We will be together one day, until then RIP.”
Another married couple, believed to be from Berkshire, were also among those killed in the tragedy.
It’s believed their daughter and her boyfriend were in the car and are still receiving treatment in Musgrove Park Hospital.
Members of the public battled alongside police and fire crews to free people from the wreckage strewn across the three lanes of the northbound carriageway.
Dozens of police units, 15 fire crews and 42 ambulances were dispatched amid reports of multiple casualties, explosions and fires 30ft high. As the tragedy unfolded, Paul Slaven, of Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service, said: “This is the worst road traffic collision anyone can remember... so many vehicles involved.”
Of the casualties, 25 were rushed to Yeovil District Hospital while 17 of the more seriously injured were taken to Musgrove Park Hospital in Taunton.
Nine others were taken to a temporary holding unit set up by the ambulance service. Musgrove Park Hospital said four of those it had received had now been discharged.
Injuries ranged from limb fractures to more complex chest and abdominal trauma. A surgeon was flown in by helicopter from the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital to help treat the casualties.
Witnesses struggled to come to terms with the scale of the devastation.
Josie Gallimore, 60, and husband Brian, 61, walked the few minutes to Hyde Lane bridge, which overlooks the motorway, after hearing of the accident from neighbours.
“It was about 11.30pm and there were helicopters and fire engines and a lot of noise,” said Mrs Gallimore. “We didn’t stay long because it was too disturbing. You could hear the cries of the little ones trapped in their cars.
“They had to remain in their cars with their families and apparently some were there for up to three-and-a-half hours. I didn’t sleep last night. I couldn’t. It’s a terrible tragedy.”
The crash left carnage in its wake, with charred metal strewn across the carriageway and some vehicles melted into the road. Police were continuing to clear the wreckage yesterday but said it was painstaking work.
“We’ve got to work carefully and meticulously through the debris, which includes quite a lot of personal effects, and we need to do that very, very sensitively to ensure we can recover everything we’re able to,” Mr Bangham said.
The police investigation will look at how the fireworks event was organised and what permission was given for it.
Asked whether a higher death toll was possible if it turned out that some victims had been so badly incinerated in the inferno that almost no trace of their bodies remained, he admitted police could not be “100 per cent certain”.
He said: “We are now as clear as we can be that the number of people who lost their lives is seven. We are still working through the debris and we would not anticipate from everything we can see that that figure would go up. I don’t think you can ever be certain.”
The southbound carriageway reopened last night while the northbound section was expected to reopen overnight after repairs.
Story by Andy Greenwood, Western Morning News.
Fog played a role in UK's worst crash
Britain has not seen a road traffic accident on the sheer scale of Friday’s M5 motorway pile-up for the past two decades, according to experts.
Edmund King, president of the AA, said the only comparable incident was a major crash which involved 51 cars travelling along a stretch of the M4 in Berkshire in March 1991. The crash, which happened near the town of Hungerford, left 10 people dead and a further 25 injured.
It happened in heavy fog during morning rush hour after a van skidded into the central barrier of the east-bound carriageway. The initial accident caused various crashes between a number of other vehicles – including articulated lorries – with drivers’ vision restricted by the poor weather conditions.
Leaked car fuel and combustible material being carried in a vans ignited, setting light to a number of vehicles.
The worst-ever road accident in Britain took place on May 27 1975 when a 45-seater coach carrying pensioners came off a bridge in North Yorkshire, killing 33 people.
Meanwhile, on November 17 1993, a crash on the M40 left 12 children and their teacher dead when a minibus transporting them home from a concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London crashed into the back of a maintenance truck while on October 21 1985 a coach collided with traffic at a standstill during M6 construction work, killing 13 people.
Facebook tributes left for victims of tragedy
Hundreds of people have paid tribute to the dead and injured and their families on Facebook.
A tribute page on the social networking site, called the M5 Motorway In Somerset Tribute Page, had last night attracted more 700 separate contributions.
Many express a combination of shock and horror at the tragic events of Friday evening but also praise the efforts of emergency service staff.
Tina Warran writes: "I had to go over the crash site today to do my ponies and my son and I stopped on the bridge and sat there for 10 minutes in total disbelief and out of respect to the people that lost their lives yesterday."
Jill Rumary, from nearby Taunton, wrote: "Thoughts and prayers are with all those affected by this awful tragedy. Praise goes to all the emergency personnel and hospital staff too. God bless you all x."
Pete Austin wrote: "I'd also like to pay tribute to those civilian men and women who tried bravely to help get victims out of cars before the emergency services arrived. You all deserve medals!"
He later added: "Have just heard that police have said that the death toll won't rise above seven.That's one small mercy at least."
Shaunna Stride added: "I hope the ones who were seriously injured make a good recovery.
"And I also think we all have to say a huge thank you to the emergency services and the concerned bystanders for the amazing job they've done xx."
Darren Lissaman wrote: "There are no words to be said that can even come close to helping the families of those poor people that have lost their lives and been seriously injured in this horrific incident.
"Let us not look for blame, or judge anybody, now or ever, instead let us thank God that most of us haven't lost anybody and send a message to those that have.
"It will not bring them back, it will not ease the unbearable torture they are going through, but we, as a nation united in grief, send our thoughts, prayers, and love to you."
'People were trying to create order out of chaos'
A hero paramedic involved in the rescue of dozens of people from the M5 crash returned to the scene yesterday to reflect on the carnage he witnessed.
Dr Andy Smith, 44, from South Western Ambulance Service, was one of more than 60 medics called to the Friday night disaster.
From a motorway bridge overlooking the carnage, he said: “I stayed at the scene until about 2am on Saturday.
“When I arrived it was almost like something out of a disaster movie. But even then people were trying to create order out of the chaos.
“My colleagues were dealing with casualties right at the side of the vehicles.
“I dealt with the casualties that were able to walk – giving them treatment.
“No one had ever seen anything like this – they are obviously trained professionals but they are also human beings.
“The central area of the scene was a fireball. Then there were the cars at the back which had smashed into each other.
“My colleagues were extracting them from the vehicles and giving them immediate life-saving first aid.
“They carried out some heroic actions to save lives. We treated over 50 casualties and approximately half of them had very serious injuries.
“There weren’t many burns victims – the majority were major trauma injuries. Over 50 ambulances and more than 60 staff came to the scene.”
Town pays its respects to crash victims
Hundreds of carnival enthusiasts and others observed a minute’s silence in Bridgwater town centre yesterday to show their respect for the dead and injured of the M5 crash.
They gathered in sunshine around the statue of the town’s Guy Fawkes Carnival ‘squibber’, one of those designated to hold giant fireworks aloft in the traditional close-of-carnival ceremony.
The carnival was in full swing on Friday when the tragedy happened. The squibbing display due to take place at the end of the carnival was cancelled.
Carnival President Peter Bastin had invited everyone to attend the gathering in the Cornhill at noon.
Carnival press officer Dave Stokes said: “I estimate about 1,000 people were here in the street. It was a sombre occasion.
“Pete Bastin and the president of Bridgwater carnival’s gangs and features spoke and we had a collection. It has not yet been decided where that will go, but it will be either to families or the emergency services.”
Worshippers at Creech St Michael Baptist Church, situated close to the site of the accident, remembered the victims in their prayers yesterday morning.
Pastor Gary Birch said: “At the start of the service we had some special prayers and thoughts. We’ve also got a special service of thanksgiving this afternoon for people to remember their loved ones.
“It was already planned but it will now involve some remembrance of those who have lost their lives in this.
“The emergency workers and the first responders will be the people we’re going to know, so we’re thinking of them as well.”
Prayers for the victims, their families and the emergency services and medical staff were also said during mass at Taunton Catholic Church.
Lib-Dem Taunton Deane MP Jeremy Browne said everyone had been shocked by the images of the horrific crash.
“My thoughts are with the people injured and killed and their families,” he added.
“I pay tribute to the bravery and professionalism of the fantastic Somerset emergency services who have dealt with this horrendous accident.
“The fire fighters, police and paramedics and all the staff at Musgrove Park Hospital who have helped victims and their families.
“There has not been a crash on this scale for many years and the implications of it will be life changing for many people.”
North Petherton Carnival, which was due to take place on Saturday, was cancelled by organisers following advice from the emergency services and highways officials.
It was felt that the road network in the area, already taking traffic diverted from the motorway, would be put under too much pressure.
Car leaked fuel at store car park