Minster Law Associate Solicitor Helen Richardson has experienced loss due to a fatal road accident first-hand.
As part of our National Road Victim Month Campaign she is sharing her story.
Helen and I met on our 1st day at secondary school. Through some quirk of chance or amazing foresight we had been put into the same year group and were seated next to one another for most lessons.
We hit if it off immediately. Perhaps it was because we shared the same first name or maybe it was because she was by far the smallest girl in the school and I was by far the youngest. Either way we felt a common bond as we stumbled through the challenges of Year 7 together in one of the largest comprehensive schools in the county.
Both of us came from very tight-knit families and had been sheltered from the recession in the early 80s. This was not the case for most of our contemporaries. School in the 80s was a tough place and Helen and I stuck together and pulled each other through.
She had a great sense of humour and her curly blond hair and freckles belied an incredibly tough streak of resilience and determination.
Helen took after her Mum who was a nurse. Both were extremely caring, both were tiny but feisty and both wore a permanent smile from ear to ear.
Helen was always brim full of life, forever giggling and using humour to defuse an otherwise serious situation.
We grew up together through 7 years at school. Sharing a love of 80s music and ‘fashion’. Even now I can’t listen to Paul Young’s “Wherever I lay my Hat” without thinking of Helen belting it out whilst we thumbed through Smash Hits.
We both hoped to go into caring professions. Helen always wanted to be a nursery nurse and she took any opportunity helping with children’s groups, such as the local Sunday School and Brownies to gain experience.
We were in separate study groups due to our options at A- level, but still came together in the common room for study sessions – not that much studying ever went on. Rather these were opportunities to gossip about school, boys, fear of the dreaded A level exams and, even worse, our fear of the results.
I also fondly remember our ridiculous, clandestine raids to the strictly off-limits sweet machines in the neighbouring public leisure centre. We would take turns to complete the daring run and returning jumper and blazer stuffed with sweet orders for the whole common room.
Outside of school, I recall a trip to the Rose Theatre in Stratford upon Avon and Helen sleeping all the way there and back in the bus, as well as most of the time during the play! Or the time when Helen and I got stuck on a chairlift swinging noiselessly in mid-air just over the cliff edge of The Great Orme in Llandudno. All Helen could think about was trying to drop sweets down onto people walking upon the cliff path.
Of course, looming over all of us that last summer together was the prospect of a life without school and our future adulthood with all of its possibilities and responsibilities.
The last summer Helen talked a lot about her new boyfriend and the plans they were making together.
She was so happy they were finally going out together. Typically for her, she could never appreciate just how lovely a person she was. She had braces fitted just before the exams, she was devastated and genuinely couldn’t understand what her boyfriend could find attractive in her.
The week before our A level results, I got a telephone call from a mutual friend asking whether I had heard about the accident.
I was told on the Saturday evening Helen and her boyfriend had been heading out in her boyfriend’s newly serviced car. They hadn’t travelled more than 2 miles down the road from her house before leaving the road at speed and colliding heavily with a big oak tree. The full impact had been to the front passenger side of the vehicle, where Helen had been sitting.
While her boyfriend had been able to walk away from the wreckage with cuts and bruises, Helen had to be cut free over the course of several hours.
When the emergency services arrived, it had been daylight and she’d been screaming and crying. This had all stopped as it started to go dark and the rescue dragged on.
Due to her injuries and the length of time taken to free her, she was not expected to survive the night.
Except, typically for her, she did. She hung on, intubated and with her lovely blonde hair completely shaven for another 7 days, but she never regained consciousness.
Her family made the agonising decision to switch off her life support at that point.
She was just 18 – her 18th birthday had been during the A levels and typically for her, she had not celebrated as she wanted a proper party once we all had the results.
I was learning to drive at the time, and I had a driving lesson the day after the initial call. I remember just stopping at a junction during my lesson. I’d struggled to process what I’d been told and it suddenly hit me what had happened. I could not stop crying and the driving instructor had to take over and bring me home.
The funeral was the day of our A level results. A lovely, warm and sunny summers’ day.
Someone had taken the decision to mark through Helen’s name with a black marker pen. This only served to highlight the fact she didn’t exist anymore. Her name, like her life had been had been snubbed out within an instant. As your eyes scanned down the columns for your own results, you were drawn back, again and again to that line. You could even see it as you stood some distance away in line waiting for your results envelope.
After the GCSE results, I had stayed behind and celebrated with friends. Now, after the A levels, I couldn’t get out of the building fast enough. I grabbed my envelope and left without speaking to anyone.
As I hadn’t yet passed my driving test, I had to catch a bus to the funeral. The last time I had been on a bus was with Helen. Luckily, by chance, another school friend happened to drive by and give me a lift, sparing me that experience.
The funeral service was nothing but a test of endurance for everyone. Helen had been teaching the Sunday School children the song “He’s got the Whole World in His Hands” before she died, and this was one of the hymns chosen.
When the coffin came in, the family had chosen Bryan Adams “Everything I do, I do it for You” as this was the number 1 at the time and would be for many more weeks. Helen had loved the recently released Robin, Prince of Thieves film, especially Alan Rickman’s wicked Sheriff .
When I see that film or hear either of those pieces of music, it immediately takes me back to that tiny chapel, sun streaming through the windows, Helen’s elderly grandparents and younger brother staring into space and a bunch of us school friends frankly wishing we could be anywhere else.
The burial was no better. I remember Helen’s family literally holding one another up and the sound of the sobbing and sand thudding down.
We then went to the wake, across the road from the church – another ordeal.
Helen’s Mum and Dad, both clearly on strong medication, wearing sunglasses, were ridiculously upbeat, wandering around with trays of sandwiches and drinks. Asking us repeatedly if we needed anything more to eat and drink and thanking us all for coming as we sat in quiet groups, counting the minutes until we had passed sufficient time for it not to be considered rude to leave.
That is how I remember my school life ending and the brutal jolt of my transition to adulthood and realisation of my own mortality.
No-one ever got to the bottom of what happened that August night. Was it driver error or was it mechanical failure or a combination of both.
Either way, the impact speed was considerable and Helen, in the front passenger seat, did not stand a chance.
We have just passed the 29th anniversary of the accident and Helen’s death. 15th August will mark 29 years since A level result day and the funeral.
I still remember it as vividly as though it were yesterday, and Helen’s family and friends endure as a living reminder.
The tree the car collided with still stands with a big patch of bark missing at the bottom where the impact occurred. I pass the tree every time I return home.
I wanted to write this article as a small tribute to Helen, to say that I have never forgotten what a great friend she was and the good times we had together.
I also wanted to show the lasting impact that this accident has had on my life.
I never did go on to become a vet as planned. My science A levels were not good enough. I could have got into medical school in the alternative but was far too angry to consider this because I felt that the doctors had let my friend down in not saving her.
As a serious injury lawyer, I see day to day the devastating impact of one split second’s loss of concentration or mechanical fault. I also appreciate only too well that behind every statistic is a real person.
Standing with these real people are the family and friends who bear witness to events and share in the grieving and recovery process. All are profoundly affected. None of us ever completely move on.