On sticks and crutches, the Yorkshire hens hobble to recovery

In their first interview a gravely injured bride-to-be and her friends tell Audrey Ward how they are rebuilding their lives after a horrific bus crash
25 August 2013

The Sunday Times

Sarah Johnson, blonde curls piled on her head, tentatively approaches the balloon-strewn stage. As she hands over her crutches, or “sticks” as she calls them, and takes aim at the dartboard, you would never guess that three months earlier she was fighting for her life.

It takes some guts for a beginner to compete against Dennis “the Menace” Priestly, the two-time world darts champion, in front of a room of 300 people, but that is nothing when compared to the reserves of strength she has had to draw on over the past few months.

Johnson broke two bones in her back and several in her right leg in a road accident involving 21 women on their way to a hen weekend last April.

Her leg is encased in a metal brace, and between her ankle and knee she has a lump the size of a plum. The swelling marks the spot where she had a recent skin graft.

She has had two operations and is facing a third. Behind me, her father Johnny is fretting as she sidles up to the dartboard. “She’s not supposed to put any weight on that leg,” he says.

Afterwards, when Johnson sees her father’s concerned face, she shrugs her shoulders: “I just wanted to win.”

It was on the morning of Friday, April 26 that Johnson’s life changed for ever. The 25-year-old was setting off with 20 friends from South Elmsall, West Yorkshire, for their friend Stefanie Firth’s hen weekend in Liverpool.

Johnson was to be one of the bridesmaids when Firth, 25, married her long-term boyfriend Gary Leafe the following month. The women, all in matching T-shirts, were laughing and joking when a Farmfoods lorry collided with their minibus, which then flipped over.

The emergency services, including six air ambulances, were called to junction 32 of the M62 where the minibus lay on its side with many of the women trapped inside.

Dr David Macklin, of the Yorkshire Ambulance Service NHS Trust, was one of the first to respond to the emergency call. “It was one of the most horrific [accidents] I’ve witnessed,” he says, “because of the high proportion of serious injuries. People were distressed and in pain and shouting for help. The injuries included head injuries, fractured thigh bones and pelvises, and spinal injuries.

“They all knew each other so those that were conscious were worried about everybody else.”

One of Johnson and Firth’s best friends, 18-year-old student nurse Bethany Jones, died at the scene.

The accident devastated South Elmsall, a small mining village, where almost everyone had a connection to one or more of the women.

Months on, I have been invited to the village by Trevor Jones, a friend of the families. He has organised the darts tournament which is being held in a sports and social club, to raise funds for the women and their families.

Firth, 24, tanned with a ready smile, joins Johnson on stage to throw some darts. She, too, fought for her life, suffering a ruptured spleen and serious spinal injuries. Doctors warned she might never walk again, but she has fought back and is slowly recovering. She no longer needs a neck brace and uses a walking stick to get around.

She tells me that she had played darts only once before, but Johnson, the more outgoing of the pair, cajoled her into taking part in this evening’s competition.

Johnson said: “It’s important for us to be here and to thank the community for all their support.”

In the wake of Jones’s death, her cousin Mark set up a website, Beth’s Angels, aimed at raising funds for the women involved in the accident, including Jones’s sister Amy and her mother Diane, and for the air ambulance crews who helped save the women’s lives that day.

People have been hugely supportive, turning out in droves for events from coffee afternoons and pop concerts to rugby and golf tournaments. So far, more than £30,000 has been raised and the darts event brought in £6,000, the most realised at any event so far.

Johnson is a bubbly, friendly girl, but occasionally her sunny demeanour slips and she appears tired and glum. I ask her what she does to pass the time as she recovers. She cannot read or watch television box sets because the medicine she is taking prevents her from concentrating for long periods.

“I spend a lot of time on eBay,” she says, before giggling at the memory of her mother Michelle’s early attempt at getting to grips with the site. One night her mother, who was also injured in the crash, woke her up in a panic to tell her that instead of bidding £10 on a T-shirt, she had accidentally bid £1,000.

“It was only a few days after the accident,” Johnson says, mock indignantly at the memory of the wake-up call.

Johnson’s older sister, Becky, 27, was due to go on the hen weekend, too, but it clashed with a weekend booked in London. Her boyfriend happened to be travelling in the opposite direction to the minibus and came upon the crash. He telephoned Becky from the scene, telling her he could see her mother but could not spot her sister.

The family was frantic because at the time there were inaccurate reports that three people had died. “I was sure she was dead,” says her father.

Becky Johnson, a hairdresser who moved out of home a year ago, visits her sister every morning for breakfast before she goes to work. She shows me a picture on her iPhone. “This is me, Sarah, Beth and Beth’s sister Amy. I’m so glad I have this photo.”

At Jones’s funeral, which took place in June in St Joseph’s Church in Moorthorpe, six of the women arrived in wheelchairs and many were on crutches.

Johnny Johnson tells me his daughter had started a new accounting job the month before the accident and was enjoying it. She wants to return to work as soon as she can.

Her days at home go slowly and are interspersed with hospital visits. At night she sleeps on a special mattress in the family living room. “She regularly suffers from nightmares,” he says.

He talks briefly about the crash, explaining that his daughter was flung through a window of the minibus. Initially she could not be found, because she had been thrown some distance. He says the impact of the lorry caused their seats to shunt forward. It was this that led to the extensive leg injuries.

The driver of the lorry, Kevin Ollerhead, and the minibus driver, Jimmy Johnson (no relation), were arrested and released on bail. The police investigation continues.

The accident is still taking its toll on many of the women, who find it difficult to sleep and are feeling depressed despite gradual improvement. Earlier this month some of them had a celebratory dinner at their local pub, the Barnsley Oak, to mark the fact that Firth’s cousin, also called Amy, is now able to stand.

Four days later there was another cause for celebration when Ashleigh Warner, 25, who seriously injured her left leg in the accident, walked with no crutches.

The wedding preparations have started again and Firth and Leafe are planning to walk down the aisle in the winter. Johnson will be there in her bridesmaid’s dress, hopefully without crutches.

To donate to the fund, visit bethsangels.co.uk