Kegworth air crash: Dad lived through crash only to be handed a death sentence
Tomorrow relatives of the 29 local people who died in the 1989 East Midlands air disaster will mark the 30th anniversary of the tragedy. Armagh woman Ashley Clarke’s father Dessie was a survivor of the crash, but now has another fight on his hands — with the inherited brain disorder Huntington’s disease. Ashley tells of her dad’s journey, and her own fear of getting the condition.
Q. How did your father find himself on board the ill-fated London to Belfast flight?
A. Daddy and his friends Mervyn and Leslie had all been over to the London Boat Show that weekend. They were all boat mad, into watersports. They finished a little early and went to the airport and decided to get an earlier flight home. They weren’t even meant to get that flight. Sadly, the engine trouble started. It was the left engine that went on fire. Daddy said they could see the engine and the problems, but the pilot was coming on the tannoy talking about shutting down the right engine and saying they were going to land in East Midlands until they got sorted.
Daddy can remember thinking that that was wrong. He was looking out of the window at the left engine, which was in flames. He said he couldn’t understand why no one actually went and said: “Listen, we’re sitting back here and we can see it’s the wrong one.” It all happened so quickly and I suppose it’s easy now looking back on it. I know at the time there was an investigation and the pilots got into some sort of trouble.
But daddy never blamed the pilots. He was sure that they didn’t want to crash land and did everything that they could. It was a freak accident.
Q. What did your dad remember about the crash?
A. Daddy broke his legs and his left ankle was badly crushed. He thinks he was knocked unconscious. He remembers looking out and seeing the flames and knowing something was wrong and hearing the pilot. He remembers it being so quiet and not like in the movies, where everyone is screaming and panicking. Everyone thought that they were going to be fine and glide into the airport. He says he opened his eyes and he could see the sky, because just behind where they were sitting, the plane had split apart and the seats behind him were gone.
There had been three sisters from Monaghan sitting there. They died. They were literally centimetres from him. Can you imagine how close those seats were and how that determined whether you lived or died?
If daddy hadn’t survived that plane crash my brother and I wouldn’t be here. It’s frightening to think that.
Back home, mum was standing in the kitchen and saw on the news that the plane had crashed. Mum was around 19-years-old and dad was 22. They were only just married. Mum rang Leslie’s wife Diane, because she had booked the flights. Diane was heavily pregnant and mum didn’t want to alarm her, so she just casually asked what time the boys were due home and what flight they were on. Mum and her brother Ivan started ringing the airport and gave the three men’s names.
Mummy was given an emergency contact number and she knew then that something was wrong. At 11pm that night mum found out they were alive and what hospital they were in. Dad was in hospital for a week-and-a-half over there and he spent another two weeks in the Royal in Belfast. He was in a wheelchair for nearly a year.
Q. How did the injuries impact on his daily life?
A. He always suffered from the injuries. The plane crash was in 1989 and my brother was born in 1991. Mummy would say that daddy wasn’t fit to lift Ryan’s carrycot out of the back of the car and take him into the house, because he couldn’t support his legs. He always had a bad limp and he had to wear a support on his leg every day. He was always on a lot of painkillers. He could walk again and he could work, but he was never the same.
Q. You were born after Kegworth happened, but was it always a factor in your life?
A. I always knew about the plane crash. We have an amazing scrapbook. Our church minister kept a load of newspaper clippings and mummy put it all together. The book is full of cards wishing daddy a speedy recovery. I would look through that scrapbook as a child. I know it inside and out by this stage.
On the 20th anniversary my dad hadn’t been long diagnosed with Huntington’s disease and he was symptomatic. He had a few issues, his brain wasn’t working just as good. The disease was setting in. On the 25th anniversary the Huntington’s had taken hold. We got his friends Leslie and Mervyn — who were on the plane with him — and their families together and we went for dinner.
Q. Your father lives with Huntington’s disease now. How did that develop?
A. A lot of people think that my father’s Huntington’s disease came as a result of the crash. But it is a neurological degenerative disorder. It’s pretty much an inherited brain disease. My daddy got it from his mummy. The best way to describe it is to imagine Parkinson’s disease, MS and Alzheimer’s rolled into one. Daddy would have gotten jumbled up when he was talking. He would get uncontrollable movements. The messages get mixed up in his head. He was diagnosed when he was 40, but he was symptomatic at that point, so he might have had it a couple years. His personality had changed in the years before that. He wasn’t the carefree, happy-go-lucky kind of guy he once was.
He needed care pretty much from the start. I was 14 when he was diagnosed. I took over his full-time care when I was 17. I did his shopping, cooked his meals and cleaned his house. We had care assistants who went in and out because I had to go to school. Myself and my brother Ryan did basically everything for him.
Q. Do you ever feel robbed in regard to your dad’s illness?
A. I lost my daddy a long time ago. But at the same time I got to know my daddy really, really well, because friends are so sharing with their stories. His friends have given us so many DVDs of my dad. It’s like we have got to know him all over again. Yes, I have lost out. My graduation was in the summer and he couldn’t be there. After the ceremony everyone was asking where I was going for dinner. And I was just hitting McDonald’s to wolf down a Happy Meal and go and see my dad in the nursing home. Mummy had got a cake and balloons and daddy was in his suit. We got some really lovely pictures taken.
I have missed out on certain things where your daddy is there for you. My daddy didn’t teach me to drive or some of the typical things daddies do, but I have the most amazing big brother who will do anything for me.
About six months ago I could have gone in and asked dad what he had for dinner and what was happening and he would have told me. You had to piece the sentences together a bit, but you could make a conversation with him. Whereas now, it’s not wonderful. You get words. You have to do “yes” or “no” answers. And, to be honest, that is hitting me pretty hard, because I can’t even go in and have a conversation with him any more. It’s sad. You’re literally watching your daddy deteriorate.
Q. What has your dad taught you about life?
A. I remember my dad bringing me a mini-motorbike and my mum cracking up. I was about nine. He told her it was fine, as I had a helmet. And I remember me saying I wanted to go skiing, so he took the wheels off my skateboard and tied it to the back of the ride-on lawnmower and raced me around the garden like a snowboarder.
I have seen videos of him and his friends water skiing and doing that pyramid formation down Lough Erne, where one stands on the other two’s shoulders. They were crazy.
He brought us out on the speedboat every weekend after church. He gave the boat to Ryan when he turned 17 and we still go out on it all the time.
I have spent three summers teaching water sports in America. Without daddy teaching me everything I know, I wouldn’t have been able to do that. He really instilled in us a sense of adventure. He taught us to live every day like it’s your last. He might not have taught me how to drive a car, but he taught me how to drive a speedboat.
I know my daddy would say that he had a good life. Yes, it was cut very short, because from the age of 40 he couldn’t do a lot. But he had a bloody good life. The airplane crash did stop him from skiing and he couldn’t do half of what he used to, so it did rob that bit off him. But he did have a good few years. Some people get to old age and wish they had done this or that. I genuinely believe that my daddy wouldn’t say that. From the stories I’ve heard he had a flipping great life and it has rubbed off on my brother and I.
Q. Huntington’s disease is genetic. Do you have any fear that you might have inherited it?
A. In all honesty, every day there is a bit of fear that you might end up with it. I have watched daddy deteriorate over the last 12 years. I go in sometimes to see my father and I think that could be me. And it’s hard looking at someone and thinking I could have that too.
There is a blood test that you can have done. I began the process when I was 18-years-old. I was sure I needed to know. It is a really hard process to go through. You have to go through counselling, it takes several months and it really is difficult emotionally, because they want to make sure that you are fit to take a diagnosis. To tell someone that this is going to happen to them is a hard pill to swallow. So I pulled out.
Q. And how has that fear impacted on your own life?
A. I have decided that I wouldn’t have children the natural way without testing for it. There is a procedure called PGD and it’s like a version of IVF, where my partner Stephen and I would have a child that is Huntington’s-free. We want to make our choices in life based on that and it’s the smart thing to do. I don’t want to put a child through what my brother and I have gone through. I want to make a smart and informed decision. When it comes to children, I will be tested for Huntington’s. To be honest, if I test positive I don’t know if I’ll have children, because they will still have to watch me die. And that would not be nice.
Q. Does it change your outlook in life, with Huntington’s hanging over your head?
A. It does change your outlook. If I was to get a positive result tomorrow, I’m not going to worry about if my house is clean or if there are dishes in the sink. I’m going to go and visit places and see as much of the world as possible.
When I end up at dad’s stage, I want people to say “Ashley had a good life, she really knew how to enjoy herself, she really went for it and missed out on nothing”. I don’t want anyone to say that I had a lovely, tidy house.
If I test negative, yes I’m going to have the cute house and the kids and drive the minivan and go to soccer practice and all that stuff that revolves around a white picket fence life. It does change your outlook in life, because if you’re not going to have very long, you’re going to squish as much in as possible.
Q. You will all be at the memorial on the 30th anniversary of the Kegworth crash tomorrow. That will be a poignant day I’m sure.
A. I’ve never been over at the crash site and neither has Ryan. I think it will be emotional for all of us. This is going to be a big trip for daddy. It will be a very long day and it will be very tiring. But I know in my heart that he would want us to do this for him. I think it will be very emotional for daddy to be back there and remembering all this. He might not be fit to tell us that he remembers, but I do think he will know where he is.
It will be hard, but these little day trips are getting very thin with dad, it’s getting harder and harder.
Tomorrow will be so important to myself and my brother, because it’s a memory with dad. It’s one more thing we can say that we did with him.
It’s all about making memories with him. Because we don’t know how long we have left with him.