Wed, 09 Oct 2019
A CRASH that killed three members of staff at Prior's Court School was caused when their minibus seemed to stop on the motorway, an inquest has heard.
The collision, between the minibus and a lorry, occurred on the M4 eastbound carriageway between Hungerford and Chieveley almost a year ago to the day – on October 11, 2018.
The hard shoulder was closed off at the time because of Highways England works.
Autism practitioners Lorraine MacLellan, 60, and Jason Aleixo, 44, died in the collision, while 52-year-old vocational instructor Catherine Gardiner – who was driving the minibus – died in hospital the next day.
The inquest into the tragedy, which opened at Reading Town Hall today (Wednesday), heard how the minibus “appeared to be travelling at five miles per hour”.
Giving evidence, lorry driver Graham Scivier said he had attempted to swerve to avoid hitting the vehicle, but “only had about two seconds to react”.
Dashcam footage from his lorry, showing the moment of the collision, was played to the coroner’s court.
It showed that Mr Scivier had been travelling at 53mph in the inside lane when he was overtaken by another lorry, driven by Stephen Hall.
Mr Hall’s lorry then pulled in front of Mr Scivier, but swerved back out into the middle lane a few seconds later.
The inquest heard that with his vision obscured by the large vehicle in front, Mr Scivier had no time to react to the Prior’s Court minibus that had appeared in front of him.
Staff member Svilen Mihof, who was sat in the front of the minibus, with Ms Gardiner told the inquest that everything was fine until the bus started juddering and shaking.
He added that Ms Gardiner was holding the gear stick saying: “Oh my God! Oh my God!”
He said: “I started to think why has the bus started shaking? I didn’t have time to say something because everything was very quick.
“It was a big shake, but I didn’t know what was the problem. I have never seen this problem before.
“It looked like the engine was working, but couldn’t properly.
“She was shouting, panicking because of something that happened and she can’t manage this situation.”
Mr Mihof said he was not worried about Ms Gardiner’s driving.
Mr Hall told the inquest that after pulling in front of Mr Scivier at 56mph, the minibus “was like a wall coming towards me”.
He said: “There were no lights, no hazards, no brakes. It just flew past me and it was at this point that I knew the minibus was in trouble.
“I was not aware of the minibus slowing down until seconds after pulling back in that it was coming toward me.
“It was as if someone had taken their foot off the accelerator and driven backwards in a straight line.”
The inquest heard from a witness Darren Chapman who said that the minibus appeared to be travelling at about 5mph just before the crash.
In a statement, he said: “About 10ft behind was a lorry. I saw it brake and the driver tried to swerve and couldn’t and he hit the minibus.”
Mr Scivier said he was aware of other vehicles in front of him, but not specifically the minibus.
He said: “As soon as he [Mr Hall] pulled in front of me my vision of the road in front was completely blocked off.
“He was there for three or four seconds and then he swerved out into the centre lane and the minibus was stopped.
“I literally had about two seconds to react.
“I would have been different if I’d had time to swerve but as it was with just two seconds or whatever, then swerving just couldn’t happen.”
When asked by Berkshire coroner Heidi Connor whether he could have moved into the hard shoulder if it had been open, Mr Scivier replied: “I don't think so, no.”
And when asked why he thought the bus might have stopped, Mr Scivier said: “It might have had the wrong petrol put in or run out of fuel, but those have been disproved. I can’t think of any reason why it had stopped.”
The bus was returning three young adults with severe autism back to the Hermitage school from a work placement at the Chilton Estate near Hungerford.
Five staff and three young adults with autism were injured in the crash.
The inquest is expected to conclude tomorrow (Thursday).
The family of Ms Gardiner, aged 52 from Reading said: "We are devastated to have lost Cathy. She was a kind, caring and loving person.
“It's lovely to see how many lives she has touched and we have been overwhelmed by all the kind messages and tributes that have come through.
“She loved life and lived it to the fullest. She dedicated her career to helping others. We take comfort in knowing that even after this tragedy she is still helping those in need by donating all of her organs.
“She will be truly missed. A beautiful and amazing mother, daughter, sister and friend.”
The family of Mr Aleixo, aged 44 from Thatcham, said: “Jay touched so many people’s lives with his kindness, caring and selfless nature.
“He was a long-standing member of staff at Prior’s Court in Thatcham and was known for his gentle nature and ability to always get the best out of young people.
“He was the best son, father and friend.
“Jay will always be in our hearts and thoughts, and will leave a big hole in our lives.
“He will be so sadly missed.”
The family of Mrs MacLennan, aged 60 from Farnbourgh in Hampshire, said: “Lorraine was a loving mother, grandma, daughter, sister and friend.
“She was caring, kind-hearted and adored her grandchildren, and we will all miss her so much.
“She loved her job at Prior’s Court School in Thatcham, and was loved by colleagues and the children at the school.
“We have been overwhelmed by all the support and kindness offered from everyone.
“We are utterly heartbroken. Our mum wasn’t just our mum, but our best friend.”