Nina - Interview 37
Age at interview: 84
Brief Outline: In 2002 Nina's husband, Austen, was killed in the Potters Bar rail crash. She was seriously hurt. Nina campaigned for compensation for the families of those who died. Nina misses her husband. She wrote the book 'Dear Austen' to tell him what happened.
Background: Nina is a novelist. She is a widow and has 5 children. Ethnic background/nationality' White British.
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In 2002 Nina’s husband, Autsen, was killed in the Potters Bar rail crash. On the day of the crash, Nina and her husband were going to Cambridge for a party. They were in the last carriage, which derailed because of badly aligned points. Seven people were killed in the crash and many others injured.
Nina was seriously injured and taken to a local hospital. She was unconscious for a while. When she woke up she was told that Austen was missing. However, soon it was confirmed that Austen had died, which Nina found hard to believe. Many people visited Nina in hospital, including police liaison officers, who advised, consoled, and offered practical help. After a series of operations Nina was able to return home. She still found it hard to believe that Austen had died.
Nina left hospital earlier than advised by her doctors because she wanted the funeral to take place so that her children could have a holiday. Nina believes that her children suffered even more than she did as the result of the rail crash and what happened. Nina’s grand-children sang beautifully at the funeral. Later there was also a memorial service, arranged by the BBC, which Nina found comforting though very hard to bear. Many people said lovely things about Austen and there were some grand eulogies.
At the time of the crash, Railtrack owned and operated the line, and a privatised company was responsible for the maintenance of the track. At first Railtrack denied that they were responsible for the train crash, and the company responsible for maintenance talked about possible sabotage and did not accept that the points had been misaligned due to poor maintenance. As Nina became stronger she fought for compensation, not just for herself, but for all the other families of those killed or injured in the crash. She talked to the press and organised rallies round the country. Eventually the companies concerned did admit liability and decent compensation was paid to all the families of the dead and injured. It was then that Nina realised that Austen was never coming back.
After all the campaigning and frantic activity Nina’s life changed. She believes she had a “kind of breakdown”. She felt unable to leave the house or go to crowded places. She still dislikes going out. Nina has been greatly supported by family and friends. At one stage Nina went to see a psychiatrist, who recommended a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist. Nina met the therapist but decided that therapy was a waste of time.
The families are still waiting for either an inquest or a public inquiry. At first a public inquiry was not allowed and an inquest was opened. However, the inquest was suspended in 2008 when another train was derailed in Cumbria due to faulty points. The inquest for the seven people killed at Potters Bar will not be re-opened until the investigation into the Cumbrian crash has been completed. The High Court Judge, assigned to conduct the Potters Bar inquest, has called for an inquiry into possible links between the rail crash in Cumbria, and the Potters Bar Rail crash.
Nina is still working. In 2005 she wrote “Dear Austen” a letter to her husband to tell him what had happened at the time of the rail crash and afterwards. The book was dedicated to the memory of the seven people who were killed at Potters Bar and to the families and friends they left behind (see below for details of the book). The book has been described as a touching tribute to Austen and their life together and a “damning indictment of unaccountable corporate power.”
Nina Bawden (2005) Dear Austen. Published by Virago Press, London
Nina campaigned tirelessly for compensation for all the Potters Bar rail crash victims. The...
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But then very slowly I did begin to understand what had happened, and it had been, what had happened was there was a fault in the points, someone had, Railtrack insisted were, could have been sabotaged, which was a load of old rubbish as it was quite clear to everybody that it was these particular points that had been bad, had been badly aligned, and it was a matter of, as the health and safety executive that came said, “It was a matter of piss-poor maintenance.” It’s a good phrase, “Piss-poor maintenance”
But they still wouldn’t admit liability. And so for the two or three years after the crash I wasn’t doing what they call grieving I don’t think. I was on the rampage.
Was compensation paid by the rail company?
Compensation was, was, was eventually paid, decent, decent compensation I’m glad to say, I don’t know whether… there were two women whose mother who was an old age pensioner and was killed walking under the bridge where the train went into it, and was killed by falling bricks, and they were told originally they would get nothing, because she wasn’t, she wasn’t supporting anyone. As if she was worth nothing. They said her life was worth nothing. But they did eventually admit liability to my great relief. And I think it was then I realised that Austen wasn’t coming back.
I, this is what happened to me after I’d realised that it had actually happened. I suppose I can, I had a kind of a breakdown. I haven’t been out of the house properly for for, since then. I’m frightened of leaving the house; I’m frightened of going into crowded places.
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Austen died in the Potters Bar train crash in 2002, but Nina is still waiting for the inquest....
Well we haven’t had an inquest yet.
You haven’t had the inquest yet?
There has been a funeral, there was an, an interim, we started an inquest under a High Court Judge because, there wasn’t a public inquiry. We were not, shamefully allowed it, and the High Court Judge was presiding over the inquest last year, and he adjourned the inquest because he said there should be a public inquiry after the Cumbrian rail crash which was for precisely the same reasons, failure of the points.
So we’re now waiting for a public inquiry?
We are now waiting for a public inquiry, which this government, I beg your pardon, this bloody government won’t give us. You can leave the bloody in.
So the coroner just opened the inquest and then closed it waiting for the full inquest?
It allowed you to have an interim death certificate.
We were, we were supposed to have had a larger inquest. I can’t remember the precise adjective, the coroner at the grander inquest said there should be a public inquiry.
So when was that inquest? When was, how long ago was that?
Over a year ago.
Nina and her children arranged a family funeral for Austen, and the BBC arranged a grand memorial...
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And there was a very grand memorial service which was nice. Which was the, the BBC arranged because he was, he ran the world service. And there was a great many lovely things were said. I found that very hard to bear.
Well the family funeral was different somehow. The grandson and grand-daughters’ sang.
Both of them beautifully. And you know a few people read things and said that they were; there was a, there was, particularly at the memorial service there were very grand eulogies.
Well it was, in a, in a sense it was a kind of comfort.
Nina could not remember much after the train crashed at Potters Bar. Her husband was killed and...
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Please could you tell me your story, with as much detail as you want to include.
We, my husband Austen and I were going to Cambridge from London, our house in London, to a party, it was somebody’s 80th birthday, and it was to be a river, a river cruise. We decided to spend the night in Cambridge, and make a, make a small holiday of it. And so we left the house a bit unnecessarily early, because I always do. We nearly, we, we and I think we caught the train before the one we had intended to as a result, which was a mistake.
You left on the earlier train?
Yes, we left the house earlier than we needed to, as I say we caught the, I think we caught the earlier train, I couldn’t be absolutely certain, anyway we, we, we got into a first class carriage, because we were on holiday, and we got out our magazines and books, and general travel toys. There was just one other person in, in the coach with us, who was, will loom quite large in the story. And we were sitting there smiling, and we both felt quite happy. It was a nice day. We were wearing the right clothes for a trip on the river, it was a party, and the birthday, or a birthday party, and a celebration, then we were going to have a, spend the night in a good, nice expensive hotel, and that’s that really, that’s all I remember.
I had had a series of operations. I knew that after a time, a time. They didn’t complete the operations they were going to do, one of which was to amputate my left foot because they thought I was going to die, and it wasn’t worth putting me through another miserable operation. Anyway I survived, and kept my foot which I was rather grateful for. But I didn’t really realise what had happened. I remember my son saying from a long distance away, “You’ve been in a train crash, and Austen is dead.” And I didn’t think I believed it. I mean I knew, I knew I was lying on this rather uncomfortable couch, so I assumed something had happened, but I assumed it was some kind of dream or, and I can’t remember when I actually believed it had happened.
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Austen's ashes are in a plastic pot waiting to be taken to Greece when Nina dies. She wants their...
And then, did you bury his ashes or...?
No, They’re sitting in a plastic pot waiting to be taken to Greece and scattered with mine.
Over some Greek [cliff]; because we had a house in Greece.
That was Austen’s dream and so, I thought we might as well have our ashes thrown off the cliff.
Nina got most help and support from family and friends. She went to see a psychotherapist but...
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Where did you find most help after the crash? Did you go to the..? You were in hospital so you had all the hospital treatment for your broken bones, but did you get any help for your feelings of trauma and stress and bereavement?
My family and friends.
I did go and see a, now what they call Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, but I found it useless.
Well, no, no, no; friends and family and, I’ve a wonderful son and daughter, the others live out of the country, my daughter’s been a particularly, been, been here in the house almost every day.
Oh that’s wonderful.
And my son is a doctor in Suffolk who has come when he can, when he could and did a great deal for a long time.
What happened during a session of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy?
Well they just say these silly things that you know already.
They tell you silly…?
Silly things that you know already. Or get you to talk about silly things.
So that didn’t help at all?
No. There’s only one thing that would’ve helped, if they’d brought him back.
So it actually didn’t help?
It made it more painful?
No it didn’t make it more painful; it just seemed a waste of time. The time of a good psychiatrist.