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50 years since tragic fire engine crash in College Road, Maidstone

It was a cold and drizzly Wednesday evening on September 2, 1970, when eight firemen from Maidstone Fire Station answered a call to attend a blaze "with persons trapped."

As the fire tender in which they were travelling sped down College Road, the driver - 24-year-old Roger Lynn from Plains Avenue - lost control of the vehicle in the wet and it struck a tree at the side of the road and the fire tender itself burst into flames.

It is 50 years since the tragic crash of a fire appliance in College Road, Maidstone, that cost one firefighter his life and injured seven others
It is 50 years since the tragic crash of a fire appliance in College Road, Maidstone, that cost one firefighter his life and injured seven others

Inside were Leading Fireman Peter Whent, 40, Fireman Malcolm Farrow, 26, and Retained Firemen Albert Foreman, 47; John Page, 37; Albert Bray, 44; Tony Bush, 34, and Don Bates , 38.

Mr Bates later described how he was standing in the cabin trying to pull on his fire tunic as Mr Lynn raced down Loose Road and into Sheals Crescent.

He said: "Trying to get into my fire tunic, boots and leggings, I had to frequently look up ahead to anticipate the swaying of the vehicle.

"I had just put my fire helmet on when I glanced up and all I could see was the trunk of a massive plane tree. We must have been doing 60mph when we hit it.

"My head struck the partition separating the front and rear of the cab and I was knocked unconscious, falling into the well of the cab. "

Retired firefighters: Peter Whent, Don Bates and Tony Bush
Retired firefighters: Peter Whent, Don Bates and Tony Bush

Roger Lynn and Malcolm Farrow were immediately enveloped in flames as the petrol tank burst. Mr Lynn's foot was trapped under the accelerator pedal and he could not escape. Mr Farrow did manage to leap out, but ran down the road with his clothes alight, until he collapsed.

He was to die four days later in Medway Hospital.

Coming to, Mr Bates found himself huddled on top of displaced foam cannisters and surrounded in acrid smoke. In front of him, Mr Whent was calling for help, while behind him Mr Bush was frantically urging him to open the door.

Mr Bates said: "A wall of flame blocked our exit through the offside door and try as I might, I could not shift the displaced cans that were jamming shut our nearside door."

In desperation, he repeatedly kicked at the door with his feet and was able to force open enough of a gap to squeeze through - only to fall some 12 feet to the ground.

While Mr Bush struggled after him, Mr Bates rushed to the rear of the appliance to put a ladder up to reach the still-trapped Mr Whent.

Don Bates and Peter Whent are among this group of Maidstone firemen taken in 1967. From left: Don Bates, Jim Homewood, Peter Whent and Barrie Lines
Don Bates and Peter Whent are among this group of Maidstone firemen taken in 1967. From left: Don Bates, Jim Homewood, Peter Whent and Barrie Lines

Unable able to open the cab door, Mr Bates pulled Mr Whent through the shattered window. Both men then toppled off the ladder to the ground and Mr Bates lost consciousness again, not to wake up this time until he was in hospital.

The incident was unforgettable too for those members of the public who rushed to assist.

Martyn Barrett was a mere whipper-snapper of 15 at the time. He later recalled: "My family lived at 11 College Road. We were watching TV when we heard a loud bang.

"My father, Edward Barrett, and I rushed outside to see what it was.

"The fire engine was half-way up a tree and had caught fire. Several of the men were still inside. But one man got out and was in flames - he ran off down the road."

Lead fireman Don Bates escaped serious injury
Lead fireman Don Bates escaped serious injury

Despite his young age, Martyn Barrett was already working - at Len Cabinets in Water Lane, where as it happens, one of the retained firemen, Tony Bush, also had his full-time job. (The factory and indeed the lane itself have long since disappeared under The Mall Shopping Centre.)

Mr Barrettt said: "Flames were coming from the front of the vehicle and down one side.

"My neighbour, George Stoner, who lived at number 17 College Road, and I managed to get hold of the last man and pull him out. He came hurtling through the window."

That was the driver Roger Lynn. His leg was badly crushed and burnt and later had to be amputated. Mr Stoner, who was himself burnt in the rescue, was given a bravery award by a grateful fire service.

Martyn Barrett, who was 15 at the time, rushed to help the trapped firemen. He is pictured with his copy of the Kent Messenger's coverage of the crash
Martyn Barrett, who was 15 at the time, rushed to help the trapped firemen. He is pictured with his copy of the Kent Messenger's coverage of the crash

A fire crew from Larkfield arrived to put out the flames on their colleagues' tender.

There will be a ceremony to remember the tragic event and to pay tribute to Mr Farrow at Maidstone Fire Station in Loose Road on Wednesday, September 2, at 10am on the 50th anniversary of the tragedy.

There will be a brief service conducted by the Rev Andrew Royal, the minister of the United Reformed Church in Maidstone's Week Street.

Tony Bush, Don Bates and Peter Whent are expected to attend the event. Sadly, the other survivors of the crash have all since passed away.

The tragedy was also the front page story on our sister paper of the time, The Gazette
The tragedy was also the front page story on our sister paper of the time, The Gazette

In Kent, 15 firemen have lost their lives in the execution of their duty since Kent Fire Brigade was formed in 1948.

The worst single incident was on November 29, 1957, when a 90ft tower building at the Oakwood Mental Hospital collapsed following a fire, crushing three firemen. One of those was Albert Farrow from the Loose Fire Station. He was the father of Malcolm Farrow, who died at the College Road crash.

Read more: All the latest news from Maidstone

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