Ten years after the Paddington rail disaster
Childhood memories of the area of my body which will soon be operated on have become increasingly very vivid & unsettling. Sometimes it seems so daunting to face our demons. I have stood outside many doors too afraid to step inside. I was praying for inspiration for my friends going through such difficult times & for myself & my modest challenges. The strength of Pam Warren to step on board a train again, to face all she has been through shows how remarkable the human spirit can truly be.
For inspiration on how to face your demons & overcome adversity Pam's story is well worth reading. I have included parts of her experiences below:-
The screech of metal against metal, wheels scraping along the steel track, was what frightened Pam Warren the most. The last time she'd heard that noise was on October 5, 1999, sitting in coach H of the 6.03am Great Western express to London Paddington just before it crashed head-on with the 8.06am Thames Train to Bedwyn, killing 31 people and injuring more than 400.
That sound was the one thing she'd forgotten; strangely missing from the terrifying nightmares and flashbacks which played in her mind like a video on a never-ending loop. But as she stood on the platform of Slough Station in Berkshire, to complete the journey she began at 7.42am ten years ago, the noise of the train pulling in conjured up all those repressed images.
The grinding and violent grating sound as the first-class carriage she was in crumpled before her eyes in the impact; the unnatural sound of men screaming around her; the white heat of a fireball and the sound of her hair crackling as the flames swept over her.
The sight of her leg on fire and the desperate scramble through a broken window all flashed back, as did memories of sitting on the railway bank - blackened and burned - staring in shock at her 'barbecued' fingers.
'My heart was racing and right up to the last second, I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to get on the train,' says Pam, 42, whose burned face, encased in a plastic mask, came to symbolise the horror of the Paddington crash.
'The logical side of my brain kept telling me I would be fine, but I didn't know if I'd be able to cope with the emotions which might wash over me.
'I haven't stepped on a train since the day of the crash, ten years ago, but I don't like the thought of fear ruling me or the crash defining me. I do not consider myself a victim and it was that feeling which stopped me running away.
I stared in shock at my barbecued, black fingers!
'To cope, I imagined myself inside a protective bubble, and it was only when another train whooshed past ours in the opposite direction that I jumped 6ft in the air. I also became anxious when we approached Ladbroke Grove where the crash occurred.
'The journey took 13 minutes, and it was a relief when it ended, but I felt elated when I got off the train because it was important for me to complete the journey I started ten years ago. It feels as if my life has come full circle. But will I do it again? I'm not sure, I really don't know if I'm brave enough.'
Pam Warren's remarkable train journey, two-and-a-half weeks ago, featured on ITV's Tonight programme with Trevor McDonald to mark the 10th anniversary of the Paddington rail crash. http://www.itv.com/ITVPlayer/Video/default.html?ViewType=5&Filter=103088
Before agreeing to it, she met Len Porter, Chief Executive of RSSB, the industry's safety wing. Thames Trains was fined £2million in 2004 and Network Rail, previously Railtrack, was fined £4million in 2007 for the 'systemic and unacceptable' safety failures leading to the Paddington Crash, and Pam was keen to be reassured by Len Porter that the main recommendations from Lord Cullen's inquiry into the crash, had been implemented.
She also insisted on being accompanied by her psychologist, Anton Kruger, who helped her prepare mentally for the journey and remained in her line of vision throughout.
'Train safety is still not perfect, but it's comforting to know that lessons have been learned,' says Pam, who plans to mark the anniversary on Oct 5th, as she has done every year, by going somewhere quiet and thinking of all those 'who didn't make it'.
'The crash should never have happened and I wish every single one of those who died was still here, but the fact that rail travel is so much safer today is a very positive legacy for them to have left behind.'
Pam Warren suffered horrific burns in the crash in 1999. She travelled alongside her psychologist. This is the first time in five years that Pam, whose courage as 'the woman in the mask' touched the nation, has spoken about the crash.
After founding the Paddington Survivors' Group, she deliberately dropped out of the public eye in 2004, following an acrimonious and painful divorce from her husband, Peter. They'd been friends for 15 years, married for two and were business partners at the time of the accident, but the trauma eventually shattered their relationship. Today, they no longer speak.
'Going over my story again and again felt like picking at a scab and I knew I had to disappear if I was going to allow myself time to heal properly,' says Pam, who was forced to give up the financial advisory service she set up with her ex-husband, who became her full-time carer after the crash.
The most striking thing about Pam Warren, today, is how good she looks, given the injuries she suffered. Her hair, burnt to within a whisker of her scalp, has grown back dark and glossy.
She has a delicate bone structure, soft eyes and a warm smile and it's hard to believe this face was once so swollen and disfigured that the sight of it in the mirror reduced her to tears.
Pam spent three weeks unconscious in intensive care. She endured more than 22 major operations on her face and hands and had to wear a transparent plastic mask for 23 hours a day for 18 months while the skin grafts healed.
'I still have the mask. Actually, there are three of them because as the swelling went down, they had to make a new one to make sure it was tight enough to keep the skin moist,' she says.
'I keep them in a memory box in the attic, with all the cards and letters of support I received. I don't ever look at them now, but I can't throw them out because they are an important part of my history.
'There will be more operations in the future, but it is mostly maintenance now. The grafted skin isn't like normal skin,' she says rubbing the surface of her hands, where the legacy of the burns are most evident with puckered skin and fingernails missing.
'It doesn't heal when you cut it. I can only go out in the sun with a big hat and special extra-strong sun cream I buy from Australia.
'Over the years I've had a few twits who, on seeing my scars, have asked: "God, what happened to you?" And I just reply: "I got burned", and walk away.
'Having stared death in the face, I've realised that life is too short to waste time on worrying about what people like that think of the way I look.
'I feel grateful for what the mask did for me. It felt like a protective barrier against the world when I most needed it and all the problems really started when it came off. The brain has a funny way of dealing with what is most important at any particular time and for the first 18 months it concentrated on my getting better physically, but after the mask came off all the emotions came to the fore.'
Pam suffered terrifying nightmares and flashbacks and found it impossible to adjust to her new life, her old one having been completely ripped apart. Perhaps, inevitably, the first casualty was her relationship with Peter, now 60, who'd lovingly devoted himself to her recovery.
'I defy any marriage to survive what we went through, although I feel a large part of the blame for the collapse of ours lies with me, because of the mental challenge I was facing,' says Pam.
'I was not a nice person to be with. I couldn't cope with what I was going through as well as the responsibility of knowing that my well-being was affecting that of another person.
'To cope, I hit the bottle for about a year. At first, I found that a glass or two of wine in the evening helped me feel a bit better. Then a glass or two became a whole bottle, or maybe two. You think it is going to numb you, help you sleep, make you so zonked out you don't have flashbacks and nightmares. Then the next day I'd feel hungover and not want to do anything.
'It made me a horrible person to live with and it is the one period of my life of which I'm ashamed. I became a selfish, uncaring idiot.'
It was during this time, when negotiations with Thames Trains' insurers over Pam's compensation were also dragging, that she tried to commit suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills. When she told Peter what she'd done, he rushed her to hospital. 'It was after one particularly terrifying flashback - I just wanted to try and make them stop,' she says. ' Afterwards I was admitted to a private psychiatric clinic for three months and for the first time I felt relief.' Pam was subsequently diagnosed with chronic Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
'I was finally being prescribed the right medication and I wasn't allowed to see any family or friends for three months - it was actually a relief, not having to worry about them or about the cooking or anything else. It was a nice rest.'
Pam's nadir came at a press conference in 2003 when she broke down in tears and wept: 'I wish I'd died in the crash.' She spoke movingly of losing the will to live as insurers insisted on what seemed like endless assessments of her physical injuries and emotional trauma.
Her real recovery finally started, however, after she stopped drinking and walked away from her marriage. Her sobriety came after a conversation with former Welsh Guardsman Simon Weston, who was badly burned during the Falklands War. Simon is lead ambassador of the Healing Foundation, a charity which helps rebuild the bodies, minds and lives of people with disfigurements. Pam now also works for the charity as an ambassador.
'Simon was one of the few people to understand what I was going through. He told me he used to drink to blot out the memories and asked me if that was what I was doing, too,' says Pam.
'He told me that no matter how bad it seemed now, it didn't mean I could not find another way to cope. He made me realise that it didn't have to be like this for ever. Then, when my close friend Jan, another Paddington survivor, told me: "I don't like you when you are like this," I went home and poured every single bottle of alcohol down the drain and just stopped. I didn't touch any drink for the next year.'
Pam is reluctant to discuss the end of her marriage in 2004, because she believes some things should remain private, but says: 'I regret the way I behaved, but I don't regret the end of the marriage. Once I was on my own I immediately began to feel happier.'
Pam credits her mental recovery on cognitive behavioural therapy, but one suspects that true grit has also played a part.
'What I like about my current psychologist Anton Kruger is that the first thing he said to me was: "Right, what do you want to do with your future?" and I loved that, it suits my personality,' says Pam.
'I don't like feeling trapped in the past. I hated not working and spending every day watching old black-and-white films at home and then having absolutely nothing to talk to my friends about. I wanted to be normal again; part of society.'
In May 2007, Pam set up her own business and now works as an events manager, organising balls and corporate functions. Her favourite was a James Bond-themed event for an engineering firm. 'It's wonderful,' she says, 'doing a job which is so joyful and is all about making people happy.'
She also takes great pride in her voluntary work, mentoring other people who have suffered burns injuries to their faces.
'Often they don't want to wear the plastic mask, asking: "Will it do any good anyway?" but as soon as they see my face that question is immediately answered.
'I like to meet the whole family of such victims to warn them that, even though this person might feel positive now, there will be periods of depression in the future and not to be frightened of it,' says Pam, who is careful to take off long periods of time between jobs because of her continuing health problems.
'It's when I become exhausted that the depression sets in and I start having flashbacks and nightmares again. I've learned now to just give into to it, rather than fight it, knowing that in two or three days it will pass.'
Pam's evident happiness can also be partly explained by the new man in her life, an IT consultant, whom she met at a New Year's Eve party almost two years ago. 'He didn't know who I was when he asked me out, he just liked me for me,' she says, smiling broadly. 'I sat him down and said: "There are some things you need to know about me." I explained that I still sometimes suffer depression and need time and space to be on my own. I told him: "I'm a high-maintenance woman, so if you want to back off now you can." But he didn't.'
'The one thing the Paddington Crash taught me is that you never know when your life is going to end, so you have to make the most of every single day.'