An inquest has heard a heroic coach driver was killed after deciding to crash into a mountainside in a bid to save his passengers when his brakes failed.
Sixty-three-year-old Maurice Wrightson had been navigating a bus full of British resort staff down the precarious D211 road from French ski resort
Alpe d’Huez when disaster struck on April 16, 2013.
He realised the brakes had failed when he approached the 21st hairpin bend, and decided to ram into the side of the mountain rather than attempt the corner.
Flames rapidly engulfed the coach, with passengers desperately trying to escape through the broken windows.
Among them was Catrin Pugh, who now lives in Chester and who suffered 96% burns to her body in the crash and was given a one in 1,000 chance of survival.
Aged 19 at the time, she was in a coma for 90 days and needed more than 200 operations and procedures.
Catrin told our sister site the Daily Post today: “In my eyes and I think I speak on behalf of everybody on the bus, we have always viewed him a hero.”
“We always knew that he took the bus into the side of the mountain, rather than risk taking the corner.
“I remember him very clearly shouting to everybody to hold on tight and without his warning, I don’t know what the outcome of the crash would have been.”
French investigators concluded Mr Wrightson had “undoubtedly prevented” the more serious consequences of the vehicle leaving the road.
The coroners court in Berwick heard from his co-driver Nathan Woodland, 39, who also worked for County Durham-based Classic Coaches.
Describing Mr Wrightson, from Ashington, Northumberland, as “old school and a very good driver”, Mr Woodland said his colleague had not been fazed by the steep, winding road and had been in no rush.
But after going through a small chicane, he said he felt the bus twitch and quickly became aware something was wrong.
He said: “I could see the road all the way down to turn 21, the distance was about half a mile.
“The gradient was not that steep compared to other bits, but suddenly Maurice looked at me with a very shocked look on his face.
“He said, ‘It’s not stopping us, it’s not stopping us’. I could tell immediately something was very wrong.”
He said Mr Wrightson began to grip the wheel very tightly and braced himself against his seat to apply more pressure to the brake.
“The coach was not gaining speed, but it was not decelerating, the brakes were not stopping us,” he said.
“I stepped into the aisle and shouted, ‘Grab a hold, hold tight’.”
He then described how the coach smashed into the boulders and he was thrown a number of rows back.
As he picked himself up he saw people desperately trying to escape and flames begin to engulf the coach, which quickly turned into a 'complete inferno'.
“There was a girl who had been sat behind the driver’s seat, her clothes were on fire. A man was trying to get her off the coach and dowse the fire on her clothes at the same time,” he said.
Emergency services arrived around 25 minutes later, with four passengers being seriously injured.
Speaking at the time, French transport minister Frederic Cuvillier was reported as saying: “The driver showed remarkable courage. The witnesses all agree that his acts and his attitude meant a much heavier loss of life was avoided.”
The inquest heard the French report concluded the cause had been “the failing of the main brake, the pads of which had been completely destroyed by excessive heating”.
The jury heard this was a result of the 'poor condition of the hydraulic retarder'.