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'I forgave young NI man involved in road crash in which my daughter died... but it's too soon to expect the parents of Harry Dunn to meet US diplomat's wife accused of killing their son in a head-on collision'

David Hulford tells Stephanie Bell why his heart went out to Tim Dunn and Charlotte Charles when President Trump suggested they meet Anne Sacoolas, who has returned to the States under diplomatic immunity

David Hulford and his daughter Michelle. The young woman was killed on a visit to Northern Ireland
David Hulford and his daughter Michelle. The young woman was killed on a visit to Northern Ireland
Tim Dunn and Charlotte Charles, parents of teenage motorcyclist Harry Dunn
Harry Dunn
US diplomat's wife Anne Sacoolas
Michelle Hulford
Michelle Hulford

It is seven years since David Hulford lost his beautiful daughter Michelle in a road accident in Northern Ireland and as he watched the news footage of Harry Dunn's parents in the US this week, the heartbroken dad couldn't help but feel the couple's pain.

The initial feelings of horror and shock at the sudden loss of his 21-year-old daughter on July 9, 2012, came rushing back to David as he watched Harry's parents on the news.

Harry Dunn (19) was knocked off his motorbike in an accident near an RAF base in Croughton by the wife of an American diplomat on August 27.

It is believed that Anne Sacoolas, who returned to the US under diplomatic immunity days after the crash, was driving on the wrong side of the road when she struck Harry's motorbike.

David's daughter Michelle (21) had just arrived in Northern Ireland for her first-ever holiday here with friends from her home in Luton when she was killed in an accident as they drove away from the airport.

The car Michelle was travelling in as she left Belfast International Airport was struck by a Land Rover and large trailer being driven by 17-year-old Stephen Hamilton, from Doagh.

Four other people in the car, including a 14-month-old child, were injured.

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Stephen Hamilton was charged with causing the death of Michelle and grievous bodily injury to Maureen Grant and Rosemary Sands, by driving carelessly.

However, at a court hearing in December 2015, a prosecuting lawyer said the case had been reviewed and the charges dropped.

David Hull has only ever felt compassion for the young man who was devastated by the carnage he caused.

Forgiving him was never a challenge for David who shortly after Michelle's death spoke about how he often thinks of the young driver and hopes he has gone on to live his life to the full.

However, he says he feels for Harry Dunn's parents, Tim Dunn and Charlotte Charles, and believes that it is very early days for them as they attempt to come to terms with the loss of their son: "Watching them on the news brought it all back to me, just thinking about how they must be feeling," he says.

"In the early days you just can't quite believe that this beautiful, alive daughter isn't here anymore.

"You go through a process of grief where you gradually go towards accepting the unacceptable, that this person who was such a big part of your life is not part of your life anymore.

"That can take months and I think for the Dunn family it is very early days to be wanting to meet the person who is responsible for their son's death and even process the notion of forgiveness.

"I reached that decision partially through my faith and also it was a pragmatic decision. You realise that accidents happen and people are human and do things they really don't mean to do and some of our mistakes do cost lives.

"You can either stay bitter for the rest of your life but where does that take you?"

David adds: "I realised a long time ago that Stephen Hamilton was a fundamentally good lad trying to do his best in a difficult situation on the road and it all went a bit pear-shaped for him.

"I was mortified and upset that I had lost Michelle but I wasn't angry at him and I didn't feel I needed any restitution."

Harry Dunn's parents were left shaken this week when during a visit to the White House to ask that Sacoolas return to face justice in the UK, President Trump dropped a bombshell on them with news that she was in a nearby room and then urged the family to meet with her.

Harry's tearful mum later told reporters: "We are still willing to meet her. But it needs to be on UK soil, you know, and with therapists and mediators. And that's not just for us. That's for her as well. She's traumatised, her children are traumatised. To be thrown into a room together with no prior warning, that's not good for her mental health. It's certainly not good for ours."

David understands why the couple could not meet the woman who knocked down their son and says he hopes they reach a point in their grieving process when they too can forgive her.

He did get to speak to the driver who killed his daughter briefly via video link during the inquest three years after her death and used the opportunity to reassure the then 21-year-old that he had forgiven him.

David said Michelle would have been the first to forgive the driver and that he, her mum, younger sister and three older brothers had all been inspired by her during her short life.

Like her father, Michelle had great faith in God and had dreams about setting up pre-schools in Africa.

She had just finished her second year at Bath Spa University where she was studying dance and creative writing when she flew to Northern Ireland to spend a week at the home of a fellow student on July 9, 2012.

It was her first ever visit here and her dad says she was very excited.

The accident happened shortly after she had been picked up by her friend's mum at the airport. When he lost control and veered into the car Michelle was travelling in it was only the second time that Stephen Hamilton had towed a trailer, having passed his driving test for trailers just days before.

He told the coroner his inexperience led to him steering slightly left - unnecessarily - to give an oncoming van more room on the road.

As he corrected his position on the road, the trailer began to "snake" in a way he had never encountered before.

A combination of the trailer weaving unexpectedly and Mr Hamilton's sharp braking caused his Land Rover to veer into the path of the Audi in which Michelle was travelling.

Michelle's dad said that he regarded Stephen Hamilton as a victim that day too and wished that he could put the "awful" events of that day behind him and get on with living his life.

At the inquest Stephen Hamilton told the court that there wasn't a day that goes by that he didn't think of everyone involved.

He also apologised to the Hulfords who attended the inquest via video link and it was the first time that David got to speak to him.

He says: "I knew in my own heart that he hadn't set out that day to drive crazily. I have a good view of human nature and tend to see people as innocent until proven guilty.

"People don't do these things thinking about injuring someone and in the case of the American driver who hit Harry Dunn, I myself while driving in France came out of a tiny road on the wrong side. It happens and that is the human side of it.

"My hopes and prayers would be that Harry's parents, who lost a fantastic son, would find compassion towards someone who made a dreadful mistake.

"Her decision to go back to America looked as if she was running away from the responsibility, but she is obviously gutted about what happened.

"Stephen Hamilton said to me there is not a day goes by that he doesn't think about what happened to Michelle and he has to live with it. Now she has to live with the awful mistake she has made. In my case I knew Michelle well enough to know she would have been the first to tell Stephen to get on with his life."

David, who works as a personal trainer with the Christian charity Youth with a Mission, which has a branch in Rostrevor, has had a picnic bench made to commemorate Michelle outside his place of work in Harpendon.

Michelle had once told her father that if she ever died that she wanted to be cremated and her ashes scattered on a waterfall.

He never believed he would ever be in the position to have to fulfil that wish yet tragically her family found themselves travelling to a waterfall in Wales where they scattered her ashes.

It has remained a very special place for them to visit where Mr Hulford says "we can reflect on how amazing she was".

"I couldn't face putting up a gravestone in a churchyard and thought the bench would be somewhere people could come and eat cake and talk and connect with each other and Michelle would be at the centre of that," he says.

"We got it made from sustainable wood as that would have been important to Michelle and when people see her name on the plaque they ask about her and that starts conversations which have led to other people talking about their losses and their grief."

Donald Trump's bombshell on Tuesday when he surprised Harry's parents with news that the driver was in the next room and urged them to meet her is something which David believes was wrong although he said he would like to believe it was well intended.

"I think when people see people distraught they want to fix things for them but you can't fix something like this, you can't fix grief and you have to allow people to do things in their own time," he says. "You have to give people space and respect to do things when they are ready."

And he adds: "I didn't get to meet Stephen Hamilton although I would be open to it if I was ever in Northern Ireland and he wanted to meet me.

"It was helpful for me to get to talk to him by video link in the court although I can't say if it was helpful for him.

"I think it was well intentioned what happened in the White House but I can see how Harry's parents would not be ready to have that sprung on them by a man who is in the most powerful office in he world.

"If they can find it in t heir hearts to forgive the driver that would be the greatest gift to themselves and the memory of their son as well."

Belfast Telegraph


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