A coroner has said that a bus which crashed on a mountain road in South Africa killing three Brooksby Melton College students was ‘travelling too fast’.
Teenagers Eleanor Payne and Samantha Lake, both 19, and 22-year-old Daniel Greenwood died when the safari bus skidded and flipped over on the penultimate day of an 10-day college trip.
The trio, who were studying for a degree in animal management and welfare, were part of a group of 18 students from the college.
But the tour ended in tragedy when the bus overturned while travelling on the Bulembu road near the north-eastern city of Nelspruit. The students were on their way from Swaziland to visit a chimpanzee sanctuary.
Miss Lake, of Syston, and Miss Payne, of Hinckley, died almost instantly in the crash which happened on June 10, 2010. Mr Greenwood, of Syston, died later in hospital.
A three-day inquest at Rutland and North Leics Coroner’s Court in Loughborough heard evidence from survivors of the accident, which happened during a steep mountain descent, as well as technical details about the vehicle involved.
The hearing was told the bus, a converted lorry, was ‘not roadworthy’, but coroner Robert Chapman said none of the defects caused or contributed to the accident.
Instead, he said he believed the speed of the bus was to blame.
Mr Chapman added: “It seems to me the most likely answer is the vehicle was travelling too fast during the descent and he (the driver, Shingirayi Goto) was not able to put it in a lower gear because he had burnt the brakes out.
“I am in no doubt, based on the evidence, the vehicle was placed in too high a gear which made the speed increase and the only way to slow it down was repeated application of the foot brake. As a result the brakes were burnt out.
“It appears the driver tried to brake and put the vehicle in a lower gear. Because he was travelling at too high a speed he could not get the bus in a lower gear and the brakes had burnt out, so he could not slow the vehicle.”
Mr Chapman said that when the bus came to a bend in the road it overturned.
The inquest was told only one member of the group was wearing a seatbelt at the time of the crash. Students who gave evidence and the two lecturers who accompanied them, Kate Cox and Lesley Wojnarowicz, said at no point did Mr Goto or tour guide Trevor Dearlove tell them to wear them, a claim Mr Dearlove denied.
However, in his findings Mr Chapman said: “It is clear from the evidence that no-one, Trevor, the driver or Kate or Lesley mentioned the need to wear seatbelts. Mr Dearlove did not inspect whether they were being worn.
“It is surprising that UK residents used to wearing seatbelts in cars or buses chose not to wear them. The answer they gave was it was not appropriate on the trip. They were encouraged to get up to see the sights, whether on normal roads or in parks.”
He added Mr Dearlove ‘bore the major responsibility’ for ensuring belts were fastened, but said the lecturers must share some of the responsibility.
But the inquest heard it was impossible to say whether or not Miss Payne, Miss Lake or Mr Greenwood would have survived if they had been strapped in.
Mr Chapman recorded a conclusion that the students ‘died in a road traffic accident’.
After the hearing their families released a statement in which they said the trio would ‘still be alive’ if the bus hadn’t been given a certificate of roadworthiness.
It read: “Unfortunately, we believe that Schools Worldwide (the company that organised the trip) is ultimately responsible for the accident.
“We believe they acted in good faith, but were badly let down by an agent they used in South Africa. He was the one who found the travel guide. This guide did not implement the company’s health and safety requirements.
“He also found Nomad Tours, the company that supplied the unroadworthy, badly converted vehicle. Nomad Tours carried out the conversion in their own workshops.
“We have heard that the vehicle did not comply with a number of South African transport regulations and standards. All the expert witnesses agree the vehicle was not in a roadworthy condition. Yet somehow it had a certificate of roadworthiness.
“The fact is that if this vehicle had not been issued with a roadworthy certificate, it would not have been allowed on the road, the accident could not have happened and Dan, Samantha and Eleanor would still be alive.
“Whoever certified the vehicle and issued the certificate is responsible for their deaths and the terrible injuries to the other passengers. They should be made accountable for their actions.
“This vehicle was a tragedy waiting to happen. If it had not been on our trip it would have happened to someone else at a later date. It is an absolute disgrace. We wonder how many other vehicles they have out there in the same condition?”
The statement added: “It’s nearly five years since that fateful day and the pain of their loss will never leave us. They were all creative, loving and clever people at the start of promising careers and lively, adventurous lives. We can only take forward the zest for life they had and honour them in how we live our own lives.”