Three Melton students were killed in a horrific bus crash while on a college trip to South Africa hours after the vehicle seemed to have been ‘damaged’ by their Zimbabwean driver taking a terrifying shortcut up a treacherous mountain road, an inquest heard today.
Teenagers Eleanor Payne and Samantha Lake, both 19, and 22-year-old Dan Greenwood died when the safari bus skidded and flipped over on the penultimate day of an 10-day wildlife study tour.
The trio, who were studying for a degree in animal management and welfare, were part of a group of 18 students from Brooksby Melton College.
But the trip ended in tragedy when the bus crashed 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.
An inquest into their deaths heard how lecturers who accompanied the undergraduates on the journey were left fearing for their lives shortly before the accident took place by the 40-minute shortcut along a pothole-covered mountain road with a sheer drop on one side.
One, who told the hearing she thought she was ‘going to die’, even tried to send a text message to her husband to say she loved him - but was unable to get a signal.
Kate Cox, the lead lecturer on the tour, said that after the bus finally returned to tarmac roads it was making a ‘squeaking’ noise that she hadn’t heard before.
She and colleague Lesley Wojnarowicz had decided they would make a complaint to their tour company about the detour and the condition of the bus, which was ‘old, tatty and not in good working order’.
But before they could do so, and less than three hours after the shortcut, driver Shingirayi Goto lost control while making a steep mountain descent and the vehicle overturned.
Miss Lake, of Syston, and Miss Payne, of Hinckley, died almost instantly in the incident on June 10, 2010. Mr Greenwood, of Syston, died later in hospital.
None of the students or lecturers were wearing seat belts. Ms Cox, who who wept at times during her evidence, claimed at no point during the trip had they been told to fasten the ‘aeroplane-style’ lap belts by tour guide Trevor Dearlove, then 65, who worked the travel company which organised the expedition, Schools Worldwide Ltd, even though it was his ‘responsibility’.
Ms Cox gave a distressing account of the accident and told the hearing, at Loughborough Coroner’s Court, how she was left ‘angry’ by the shortcut, which Mr Dearlove apologised for.
She said: “I actually feared for my life. I was so angry and wanted to stop. The students were panicking.
“I thought there was a real chance we could fall off the edge. I tried to text my husband to say I loved him, but couldn’t get a signal. I said to Lesley, ‘We are going to die’.
“I was so grateful when we got to the end of the track. Trevor apologised and said he had asked locals for a shortcut and that it was okay. I said, ‘Why the hell were we on that road?’”
Ms Cox added that after the detour, the bus began making a ‘squeaking’ noise.
She said: “Trevor said it was nothing to worry about, that it was just the wipers. I believed it was damaged along the track. I thought it sounded like the brakes.”
Mrs Wojnarowicz told the hearing how before they took the shortcut, she had seen Mr Goto talking to a local woman by the side of the road, who was pointing towards the ‘unsuitable and scary’ road they took.
She said: “It was like a simulator ride at a fairground. We shouldn’t have been on it. I believed the bus had been damaged.
“We had already decided we would put a complaint in about the track and the state of the bus. It never started first time and took several attempts. It broke down on one occasion. I asked Trevor if he would be taking it to a garage to get checked. He said, ‘No’.”
The lecturer described how the crash happened while the group was travelling down a mountain road.
She said: “I remember the bus speeding up and I heard a massive creaking noise, then I fell to one side. I must have been unconscious because the people that came to rescue us woke me up.
“I was lying on my side with legs inside the bus and my top half outside it. We were very close to a sheer drop. At first I thought it was a terrorist attack because I saw men with guns, but they were army reservists who had come to rescue us.
“I heard the driver say he could not get it in gear, and lost control.”
Mrs Wojnarowicz also said Mr Dearlove, who met the group at Johannesburg Airport at the start of their trip, had never discussed health and safety on the bus or the wearing of seat belts, and she had never seen him wearing one.
She added he encouraged students to stand up while the bus was moving to look out of the windows.
However, the inquest heard that Mr Dearlove, who lives in South Africa and isn’t a witness, had said in a statement that he had given a full health and safety briefing, and had told the group at the start of each journey to fasten their belts.
The inquest, which expected to last two days, continues.