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Page last updated at 14:24 GMT, Wednesday, 20 October 2010 15:24 UK
Remembering the Severn Rail Bridge disaster

By Andy Vivian
BBC Radio Gloucestershire reporter

The Severn Rail Bridge
Two river barges collided with the Severn bridge in heavy fog in 1960

Half a century on from an infamous foggy night in Gloucestershire we look back at the Severn Rail Bridge disaster.

On the night of Tuesday 25 October 1960 - 16 vessels, many carrying cargos of oil from Swansea or petrol from Avonmouth, were heading up the Severn aiming to enter Sharpness Harbour on the late tide.

At 9.15pm, about a mile before Sharpness, they encountered a very dense fog rolling off the Berkeley bank.

Trying to find the harbour entrance while avoiding collision with other vessels, two of the tankers drifted past Sharpness and found themselves half a mile upstream where the river narrows and the tide flows faster.

They were the Arkendale H and the Wastdale H, both owned by John Harker Ltd. The Wastdale was carrying a cargo of 350 tons of petrol, the Arkendale a similar quantity of heating oil.

It was now gone 10pm and both vessels were battling against the strong tide to regain the harbour entrance. The fog was so dense that they were just yards apart when they saw each other.

The bridge was constructed between 1875 and 1879
It was located a little upstream of Lydney and Sharpness
The bridge was 1,400 feet (425m) long and had over twenty-one spans supported by huge cast iron cylinders
The bridge was eventually dismantled in the late 1960s

At about 10.20, their bows touched and the two vessels were immediately sucked together along their entire length. Unable to draw apart, they were spun clockwise and driven upriver by the tide where, minutes later, they collided with the 17th pier of the Severn Railway Bridge, sending it flying into the river.

The two spans supported by the pier, crashed onto the tankers below. A spark ignited the petrol that was now pouring from the damaged Wastdale and soon the whole river was a mass of flames as oil from the Arkendale added to the conflagration.

Fortunately, the last train of the day had passed over the bridge just a few minutes before the accident. It was a close run thing.

By the time the train reached Sharpness, the bridge was no longer intact. The two tankers, dragging several hundred feet of railway line were brought to a halt on a sandbank just above the bridge.

Cries for help

In the water the crew were swept upstream by the tide and their cries for help could be heard from both banks. Disoriented by the swirling waters it was over an hour before one of them, George Thompson - captain of the Arkendale, managed to swim to the bank at Awre.

The Severn Rail Bridge after the collision
The Severn Rail Bridge after the collision

About an hour later, carried back down river by the ebbing tide, a second, Jim Dew - captain of the Wastdale, reached the Forest shore near the bridge and presented himself naked at a local pub.

Several local boatmen told the police it was too dangerous to launch a dinghy and more substantial rescue craft were trapped inside harbour gates by the falling tide. But despite the dangers, on each bank there were brave men who launched small rowing boats in search of survivors.

On the Forest side, father and son Walter and Mike Cadogan from Awre, and Brian Price and Lemuel Gardiner, from Lydney, searched in vain. But Tommy Carter and Charles Henderson, setting off from the eastern bank, rowed right across the river to a point below the bridge where they heard the cries of Jack Cooper, the engineer on the Arkendale, whom they rescued and carried safely to Lydney harbour.

The five other crew members did not survive and it was many days before all their bodies were retrieved.

Finally demolished

For two years there was a plan to rebuild the bridge and school children from Sharpness and Berkeley continued to attend Lydney grammar school thanks to a special train via Gloucester laid on by British Railways.

But this was the era of Beeching and sometime after 1962, the plans were quietly dropped, bringing to a close the link between the communities of Lydney and Sharpness which had lasted for over 80 years since the bridge was completed in 1879.

It was several years before the bridge was finally demolished; one firm went bust in the process. Now just the stone tower which supported the swing section over the canal remains and, of course, the two wrecks are still to be seen at low tide resting in their sandy grave.

Radio documentary

In October 2010 BBC Radio Gloucestershire's Andy Vivian produced a six-part documentary to mark the 50th anniversary of the Severn Bridge Disaster. You can listen to it by using the links below:

Severn Bridge disaster 'explained'
20 Oct 10 |  History
In pictures: Bridge Disaster
22 Oct 10 |  History
Severn Bridge disaster remembered
20 Oct 10 |  History
Ferries across the Severn
30 Mar 09 |  History


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