Published: 14:45, 30 November 2007
"WHEN I looked down over the bridge, the fog was so thick you couldn't see anything.
"There wasn't a sound coming from the wreck - you could hear a pin drop."
Donald Corke was 29 when he inadvertently became involved in the devastating Lewisham rail crash.
On December 4 1957, two packed commuter trains collided outside the south London train station in dense fog, killing 90 people - most of whom were from Kent - and leaving 176 people injured. The wreckage also smashed through the supports of an overhead railway bridge as the 5.22pm service to Dartford attempted cross.
Had it not been for the sharp senses of the overhead train's young driver, hundreds more people could have been killed in the horrific disaster. Now, as the 50th anniversary of the Lewisham rail crash passes, Don Corke shares his memories of that terrible night.
TONBRIDGE born and bred Mr Corke, now 79, had been driving trains for four years when was tasked with steering the 5.22pm service from Holborn to Dartford out of London on a foggy December night.
"In those days, there were no automatic brakes or signals," he explained. "You really had to rely on your senses completely."
As the train, packed with nearly 1,000 passengers, approaches the Lewisham to Nunhead bridge, Mr Corke saw a green signal followed by two yellow ones and decided to proceed with caution.
"The visibility was very, very bad and I was looking out for a red signal - I was sure there would be one. As we came on to the bridge, I suddenly noticed the metal girder on the bridge bending upwards towards the carriage.
"I immediately thought the bridge must have fallen down, and applied the brakes. I wasn't scared, I just had to get on with stopping the train."
Mr Corke's caution paid off and he managed to stop the train on the very edge of the gaping hole that was once the Lewisham Bridge. As he got out of the carriage and stood on the bank above the tracks below, he had no clue that in reality the 16.56 express service from Cannon Street to Ramsgate and the 17.18pm from Hayes to Charing Cross were lying in a mangled heap a few feet below him.
He would later learn that little more than a minute earlier, the Ramsgate service had smashed into the Charing Cross train, having missed two vital stop signals in the fog. The wreckage was propelled forward and crashed into the supports of the over head railway bridge, bringing masses of metal and bricks down onto the packed carriages below.
But Mr Corke knew nothing of this at the time.
"When I looked down, I couldn't see anything because the fog was so think. And there wasn't a sound coming from the wreck - the fog had muffled any noise. You could have heard a pin drop."
As the emergency service began to swarm the fog-shrouded scene below, Mr Corke and the nearest signal man set about evacuating the hundreds of passengers from the train, and had to ask the surrounding houses if the people could cut through their back gardens and front rooms as there was no other way down the bank.
Mr Corke remained up on the bridge until 5.30am, awaiting for the all clear to move his train off the bridge. Through the night, news of the increasing number of casualties below began to filter up through the signal man's radio.
"I saw very little of the crash until later on, when I down to the tracks below to get some tea - a van had been set up for everyone.
"I remember looking over and seeing lots of men in white coats climbing out of the carriage. They were carrying what looked like buckets and I could only imagine what was in them."
He added: "I didn't feel scared or panicked, thought I did have to keep nipping outside for the toilet - I guess that was the shock coming out of me!
"But that was it. In those days you kept a stiff upper lip, and had to be practical. That's how things were done then."
Early the following morning - when all casualties and fatalities were accounted for - Mr Corke was finally able to move his train and make his way home. The crash had claimed a total of 90 lives, many of them Kent commuters and Christmas shoppers. A further 176 people were injured.
The driver of the Ramsgate service would later be tried for manslaughter, but the jury failed to reach a verdict. He was discharged and died a year later.
"I knew the driver on the Ramsgate train," Mr Corke explained. "And I felt sorry for him. He was a senior driver and for him to know the mistake he made and the consequences was a big cross to bare."
Mr Corke's actions of the night of the accident were praised by the chief inspector leading the inquiry into the crash, and he was credited for saving many lives. In the years that followed, he continued to work as a train driver until his retirement in 1992 and he is now a grandfather, still living in Tonbridge. In 2003, he was invited to unveil a plaque outside Lewisham train station commemorating the tragedy.
"I have received some lovely letters over the years from people who were on my train that night," he said. "One said ‘thank you for my life' and another had a pound note inside. I used it to buy a Premium Bond, but it hasn't won yet."
"But I always say I'll never win the pools or bonds now because I've had my bit of good luck!"
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