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7 killed in British 34-vehicle motorway inferno

07 november 2011, 12:18
At least seven people died in one of Britain's worst ever motorway pile-ups, police said Saturday, as investigators probed the cause of the crash which triggered a huge fireball, AFP reports.

Footage taken at the scene showed motorists risking their own lives amid the flames to prise open vehicle doors and rescue people trapped inside.

The 34-vehicle crash in foggy and wet conditions on the M5 motorway near Taunton in southwest England sparked explosions and an inferno, reducing vehicles to cinders and leaving twisted, fire-blackened metal scattered across the carriageway.

Emergency services said 51 people had been injured and warned the death toll was likely to rise.

Witnesses described hellish scenes, with multiple explosions and towering flames sending a pall of acrid smoke over the motorway.

"We could hear people screaming in their cars. It was utter carnage," said motorist Thomas Hamell, 25, who narrowly avoided the carnage as he came to an abrupt halt next to a jack-knifed lorry at the edge of the crash site.

"We sat there and heard the thud of cars, one after another, hitting each other and thought we would be next."

As a search of the burnt-out vehicles continued, a large section of the route through England's southwest was set to remain closed in both directions until Sunday, causing long delays for motorists.

Assistant Chief Constable Anthony Bangham of the Avon and Somerset Constabulary told reporters: "Sadly I can now confirm that we believe we've had at least seven people die as a result of this incident.

"I am also able to confirm that we've got 51 casualties. Many of those have gone to hospital."

He said 34 vehicles were involved in the accident on Friday evening, "many of which are burnt -- and burnt literally to the ground."

While casualties have been taken to two nearby hospitals and some treated at the scene, Bangham said others might still be trapped.

Edmund King, president of the Automobile Association, said it was Britain's worst traffic accident in two decades, the last comparable incident being a 51-car crash on the M4 motorway in March 1991 in which 10 people died.

Hospitals said the injuries ranged from simple limb fractures to more complex chest and abdominal trauma.

Bangham said detectives would be examining the possible factors involved, including the darkness, fog and groundwater, plus a fireworks display close to the three-lane road.

"All we could hear was the sound of a horn and then the flames got so high so quickly and the noise was horrific," said Bev Davis, who saw the pile-up from her home close to the motorway.

"There must have been 200 metres (660 feet) worth of fire -- plumes of smoke were going up and everything was red."

Motorist Paul O'Connor told Sky News television: "It was quite horrific and I have never seen anything like that -- I could see people lying on the side of the road."

But tales of bravery also emerged amid the horror. Hamell said that he had managed to carry a baby to safety as chaos raged around him.

The teacher described how he and his two travelling companions managed to get safely out of their car at the edge of the accident and help a mother and her young baby, whose car was severely damaged in the carnage.

"We were incredibly lucky. The woman who gave her child, her car was wiped out," he said.

Detectives said Sunday they were investigating a fireworks display next to the scene of one of Britain's worst-ever motorway pile-ups in which seven people died in a giant inferno.

Police had removed all 34 vehicles involved from the M5 motorway near Taunton in southwest England and were scouring through the remaining debris for any personal effects.

Police said they were focusing on a fireworks event at a rugby club next to the carriageway which insisted its display had ended by 8:15 pm, 10 minutes before the pile-up.

"We have recovered all of the vehicles involved in the collision and also, sadly, all of the deceased persons," said incident commander Assistant Chief Constable Anthony Bangham of the Avon and Somerset Constabulary.

"Our main line of enquiry has now moved towards the event that was on the side of the carriageway.

"We do believe that whilst there was fog and difficult conditions in the area, that actually, from witness evidence, there was very significant smoke across the carriageway that, in effect, caused a bank similar to a fog bank that was very distracting and very difficult to drive through.

"We're going to look at who gave permission, how the event was organised," he said.

In England people mark Guy Fawkes Night on November 5, commemorating the failure of Fawkes' 1605 Gunpowder Plot to blow up parliament and King James I.

One of the major annual events in the calendar, bonfire and fireworks parties are held on the night itself or weekend nights nearby.

Emergency crews spent the night scouring burnt-out vehicles, combing through the charred metal littering the northbound triple carriageway on the principal route through the southwest.

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