Time Team - July 2008

18-Jul-2008

25 years ago tragedy struck a trip to Germany by the Gwent Youth Band.


25 years ago, on Thursday July 21st 1983, 37 players and staff of the Gwent Youth Band were injured, six seriously, when their coach overturned on a German autobahn near the town of Karlsruhe. 

The band were on their way to take part in 10 days of celebration in the region, which was twinned with the Welsh county, when their coach, carrying players, supporters and members of staff overturned in the centre of the autobahn after being dangerously overtaken by a passing car.

As one of the people involved told reporters: “One minute they were laughing and joking, the next they were thrown upside down.”

Overturned bus
The crash scene: The Gwent Youth Band bus lies on its side across the erman autobahn

It later transpired that the driver of the coach tried to take evasive action as the car veered dangerously alongside, but the nearside wheels went over the shoulder of the road and the steering wheel was wrenched from the driver’s hands.

One of those involved, 16 year old Jason Banwell, told the local South Wales Argus newspaper hours later; “It was a terrifying experience.”

Praise

The coach ended up on its side and those who could, managed to climb through the skylights and broken side windows. Many helped their colleagues, and Ken Hayward, travelling with the group as an assistant leader, told reporters; “I have nothing but praise for both the driver and the young players who did not panic.”

No panic

One of the players, Andrew Baldock of Blaenavon, later told a reporter of the Abergavenny Chronicle newspaper; “There was no panic when the bus overturned. Everyone was calm and although some were covered in blood we got out and lay on the grass until the ambulances arrived.”

Emergency services were rapidly sent to the scene and the injured were ferried to local hospitals by ambulance and helicopter.

Crash on German autobahn
Emergency services at work at the crash site ferry the injured to hospital

Of the six people seriously injured, the most serious was Pauline Morgan, a cornet player from Abertillery, then aged 20, who lost her left arm, whilst a local councillor, Philip Hobbs and music teacher Cariad Williams, wife of Alun F Williams, later Deputy Head of Gwent Music Support Services, were hospitalised in intensive care for some considerable time with serious injuries.

Miraculously, the other members of the band and staff (there were a total of 47 players and 11 members of staff) suffered only lacerations, concussion and minor injuries and wounds, although 16 of them did receive extensive hospital treatment.

The local authority, which later came under some criticism for not allegedly giving out accurate information to concerned relatives, flew many parents out to Germany to be at their children’s bedsides.

Cost

The Council had taken out extensive insurance for the trip although final costs involved in getting everyone back home were believed to be in the region of £16,000.

A little while later the County Council undertook an extensive re-evaluation of its Code of Practice to cover all future trips abroad under their care, with many new recommendations that became standard practice in the years to come.

Amazingly, despite the tragedy, the band stayed in Germany and completed two concerts in Karlsruhe and Woschbach before flying back home a few days later. 

Cheers

Just 72 hours after the crash over 500 German hosts cheered the band as they gave an emotional 45 minute concert performance in Karlsruhe, whilst 15 of their colleagues were still in local hospitals. One of the players, 19 year old June Anstice, had just been released from hospital herself less than 24 hours earlier, whilst several members of the band changed instruments to cover parts that were missing.

The band conductor, Nigel Munford told the Western Mail newspaper; “The determination of these young people has gone beyond all belief. There was a job to be done and it was done for their friends in hospital.”

Meanwhile one of the bandsmen added: “It was very emotional for us. A lot of things were running through my mind. I was thinking about all that had happened.”

Show of gratitude

Another young player told the Western Mail newspaper reporter John Humphries (later to become more famous as the presenter of the Today Programme on Radio 4); “We had to show our gratitude in some way. We came to play our music and that is what we are going to do.”

The band went on to play another concert later that evening before all but 9 of them returned home via Heathrow the next day. The remaining players and staff eventually returned to Wales at a later date accompanied by two medical teams, comprising two surgeons, three nursing staff and ambulance men from Germany.

Injured come home
Back home: Andrea Price of Caldicot returns home to Cardiff

On their return, the local MP, Leo Abse, called for a full independent inquiry into the crash, although no further legal action was taken.

The Gwent Youth Band had travelled from South Wales on the Wednesday, joined by a local football team in another coach.  The band’s instruments were carried in a van driven by Nigel Weeks, who later became a leading band conductor both in the Principality and now in New Zealand.

They were to undertake a series of concerts under the direction of conductor Nigel Mumford, and were scheduled to return home nine days later on the 29th of July. The ages of the 47 players ranged from 16 to 22.

Letters of support

Letters of support, donations and offers of help poured into the Gwent County Council offices in Cwmbran over the following weeks.

A pensioner from East Sussex sent £5.00, via Cardiff City Council as she was so moved by the story but didn’t know the address to write to, whilst other donations came from bands, music groups and individuals from all over the UK.

Two large cards were signed by members of the Hertfordshire County Youth Band and the Wilton and District Youth Band, more formal letters came Lt Col. Ray Steadman-Allen, the then Editor of ‘The Musician’ publication of the Salvation Army, and RF Budd, Director of The British Council.

Touching

Two of the most touching came from Germany itself, with the Musikverein Neuthard Band undertaken a local collection that raised the sum of DM 1,321 (approximately £330) for the band, even though as they wrote…’personally we don’t each other yet. However, we think between brass bands there may be something common that leads us together.”   

The Woshbach Accordian Group, who shared the final concert with the band in Germany wrote later: “We wish to convey our heartfelt sympathy. We tried our best to make the stay in Wosbach as pleasant as possible for the remaining members of the band and their parents. This incident has brought us closer to the music friends and also deepened our friendship to the parents.”

Thanks

In return a few months later, representatives from Germany were invited to Wales where they met up with many of those involved in the crash again.

Four representatives from the two local towns were presented with special plaques and with thanks from those they helped so graciously at the time.

Presentation
Thank you: Conductor Nigel Mumford leads the thanks to their German hosts

At the time there was some good news that came from the crash as two young members of the band, Anne Redmond and Mark Barnes were engaged at a party where other members of the band attended.

25 years later

25 years later, Alun F Williams hopes that the anniversary, although sad and poignant, will bring many of those involved back together again.

”It seems like a lifetime ago now, but also like yesterday.  Understandably, there hasn’t been any official commemoration of what happened, but 25 years seems appropriate just to take time out to remember.”

With the 50th anniversary of the Gwent Youth Band to be celebrated in 2010, Alun is keen to try and contact as many people from the band as he can to join in those celebrations.

”Although this was perhaps our saddest moment in our history, many of the players enjoyed great times with the band, before and after the events in Germany in 1983. Only a couple of years ago I bumped into a former player in San Francisco, whilst others I know are dotted around locally as well as all parts of the world. Some I meet regularly, others I haven’t seen for many years.”

50th anniversary

With that in mind Alun would like anyone who was involved with the band at the time to get in contact with him so that he can start contacting people for the 50th celebrations in 2010.

”We have so many plans for the 50th Anniversary, but the main one is to get as many former players to contact us so that we can find out more about them and what they are doing now, as well as invite them to the events we plan to undertake.”    


Iwan Fox

Alun can be contacted at : alunf.Williams@gwentmusic.net

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