The Mail on Sunday
19th December 2011
By Emily Hill
To Chris Burbull, Emma Barton is far more than simply the woman he plans to marry next summer – she is a living, breathing miracle.
Even as he holds her hand in the sitting room of their home, he struggles to take his eyes off the extraordinarily determined young woman he came so desperately close to losing.
Last month, the couple, Emma’s father Michael and her elder sister Maggie were driving home on the M5 in Somerset after attending a family funeral when they were caught up in a horrific pile-up involving 34 vehicles.
Seven people, including Michael and Maggie, died and a further 51 were hurt. It was one of the worst traffic accidents in Britain.
Police are still investigating whether fog or smoke drifting over the motorway from a fireworks display in nearby Taunton contributed to the disaster.
Emma was left critically injured when, during the incident, a lorry collided with the Ford Fiesta in which she, Chris, Michael and Maggie were travelling.
As she lay unconscious in the intensive care unit at Musgrove Park Hospital in Taunton, Chris issued a heart-wrenching plea to his fiancee on her Facebook page. ‘Baby please pull through. I can’t live without you,’ he wrote. ‘I love you so much – please, for me.’
Of all the tragic stories to emerge after the catastrophe, it was perhaps the plight of Emma that most caught the public’s imagination. She was just 13 when her mother Teresa died from a brain tumour and now she had lost her father and sister.
But despite that and her own extensive injuries, Emma’s recovery since that dark day has been nothing short of remarkable. Although it was feared she might need to spend 12 months in hospital, she returned home a mere three weeks after the crash.
‘When I first saw Emma lying there in her hospital bed it ripped me to pieces,’ says Chris, 23.
‘She wasn’t moving. She had all these pipes and drips coming out of her body. I prayed to anyone who was looking down for her to pull through.
‘Words can’t explain what I felt when she first opened her eyes again. My heart jumped. It was like someone suddenly knocking on your door when you’re on the verge of losing everything, and saying, “By the way, here’s £5 million – you’ve won the lottery.” ’
Charity worker Emma, 19, takes up the story: ‘They told me I was pretty much dead when I came in.
‘I had bruising on the brain, two collapsed lungs, five broken ribs, my pelvis was fractured in two places, my foot was crushed and my spleen had to be removed.
‘Everyone is so shocked at my recovery – not even the doctors can believe it.’
Indeed, Chris reveals medical staff thought initially it would between three and four months before Emma could sit up, let alone walk.
‘They thought she would have to spend nine months to a year in hospital. She just blew that out of the water – within 21 days she was up and manoeuvring herself,’ he says.
Emma, who has already set her sights on returning to work, has been using her father as a source of inspiration.
Michael, 67, had been plagued by ill-health for many years, suffering heart problems, breathing difficulties and arthritis, which meant he had to use a wheelchair and required round the clock care from Maggie, 30.
‘My dad had so many health problems,’ Emma says. ‘I just think about everything that he went through, all the operations he had – and he still came out laughing and giggling.
‘As a family, we have all had to be strong. And if my dad could do it, then I can too.
‘Even though Dad was in a wheelchair he did not let it get in the way of life. He loved Elvis, listening to blues and jazz, he supported Swansea City Football Club and followed horse-racing. We would play Monopoly or do crosswords together.
‘And Maggie was really bubbly. She was just so much fun – the most loving and caring person you could meet. Of course we had our sisterly quarrels, but she was such a good listener.’
Emma met Chris through mutual friends while she was still at school.
‘It was love at first sight,’ recalls Emma. ‘He had a good heart as well as his good looks.
‘As far as Dad was concerned, no one would have been good enough for me because I was his little girl. But Chris won everybody over. We got engaged two years ago – by then he was already part of the family.’
When Emma left school, she began working for Thames Hospice Care, the charity that had helped care for her mother before her death aged 46.
Starting as a volunteer in one of the charity’s shops, she later became a full-time member of staff. Chris, who trained as a car mechanic, volunteered in the same store.
Due to his ill-health, Michael rarely travelled far, but when he learned of the unexpected death of his uncle Roy Jameson, an actor, he was determined to pay his respects.
Emma, Maggie and Chris all agreed to accompany him on the journey to Penzance, Cornwall, where the funeral was taking place.
Due to Michael’s illness, they knew they needed to make regular stops along the way, and so on Friday, November 4 they set off from Michael’s home in Windsor, Berkshire, at 5.15am to ensure they arrived in plenty of time for the 2pm service.
Afterwards, the family attended the wake for several hours before beginning their long journey back to Berkshire just after 5pm.
‘On the way to Cornwall in the morning we had all been chatting but on the way back everyone was tired and a bit upset because of the funeral,’ says Chris, who was driving that day.
‘We planned to take a slow drive home, stopping off for some food and coffee, and we hoped to make it back to Windsor at about 10.30pm.
‘Michael and Maggie were quiet, dozing off in the back of the car. The only conversation was Emma offering us toffees every so often.’
Emma adds: ‘I remember turning around and asking everyone if they were OK. It’s one of the last things I can remember.’
They pulled into a service station in Somerset at about 8pm and Chris says: ‘When we turned in, I do not remember any fog, but when we pulled out it was there. You could feel it in the air – it was a bit cold and wet.
‘However, I could still see where I was going so I made the decision to carry on.’
Chris estimates that he was travelling at about 50mph and the road was relatively clear before suddenly the car was plunged into darkness.
‘It was like somebody pulling a pair of black tights over your eyes,’ he says.
‘I couldn’t see fog lights 2ft in front of me. I couldn’t see white lines in the road, and I couldn’t see the motorway crash barriers.
‘I was concentrating really hard on the road in front, and I said to Emma, “I can’t see anything. This is a joke.” ’
After hitting a vehicle in front, Chris briefly blacked out.
‘When I came to, my face was burning – this was where the airbag had hit me. In the time it took me to turn my head, we were hit from behind.
‘For seven-and-a-half hours they would not tell me where she was. I sat in the A&E department and cried so many tears’
‘I can’t remember anything else until I woke up in hospital. The paramedics later told my mum that I had run out of the car to get help for Emma and then collapsed. But I don’t remember anything of this.’
When Chris woke up, he was informed that Michael and Maggie had both died in the crash.
‘Out of pure shock, I said “OK, where’s Emma?” I felt so bad afterwards. I didn’t want it to come across as if I did not care but I just wanted to know where she was – she is the love of my life.
‘For seven-and-a-half hours they would not tell me where she was. I sat in the A&E department and cried so many tears.
‘Eventually, I was told that Emma was in the same hospital and had been taken into surgery.’
Injured in the crash himself, it seems likely that hospital staff did not want to exacerbate Chris’s own difficulties by telling him that his fiancee might not survive.
‘If she had gone, I wouldn’t have been able to carry on,’ admits Chris, breaking down in tears.
‘I feel so guilty. I will carry that guilt all my life because I was the one who was driving.’
Chris claims that when police arrived at the hospital to interview him, he was ‘interrogated hard’.
‘They wanted to know if I had used my phone at any time. I did not touch my phone. Emma was sitting right next to me and would have answered it if it had rung.
‘They asked me the same question six times: Why was I driving in fog? When we left the service station, I could see where I was going. I wouldn’t have set off had I known that ten miles down the road it was going to be pitch-black and I wouldn’t be able to see a thing. Eventually my stepdad Andy stood up and told the policeman, “Enough is enough.”
‘The police said initially that our car was the fifth or sixth vehicle involved in the accident. But when they showed us a photograph of the scene, our car was numbered 15. There had already been a collision in front of us. There is no way we could have avoided it.
‘But there are still the “what ifs” in my head. I can’t stop them.’
It was not until Sunday, November 6, two days after the crash, that Chris was allowed to see Emma. As he was still suffering severe dizziness and had an injured foot, he was taken in a wheelchair to the intensive care unit where Emma was in a medically induced coma.
Desperate for her to pull through, he later posted his message on Emma’s Facebook page and asked all her friends to pray for her.
‘When I went down to see her the next day, her legs were moving.
‘Maybe it was her mum looking down telling Emma it wasn’t her time yet. Whatever it was, Emma was coming back to me.’
Emma woke up on Wednesday, November 9 and Chris had the heartbreaking task of telling his fiancee that her father and sister had been killed.
‘I am healing really well now. There must have been somebody looking down on me – only it’s not just my mum now, it’s my whole family’
‘When I said to Emma that Maggie and her dad had not made it, she cried, “No” and a single tear fell down her cheek. Then she went back to sleep.’
Emma adds: ‘While I was unconscious, I had a dream that I turned around in the car and they were dead. Now I keep expecting to wake up from this awful dream.’
She spent much of the next few days asleep, but during the precious moments when Emma was alert, Chris could detect definite signs of improvement.
‘Even though her eyes were black and her face was still blown up, when she saw me I could see her face light up. Every time she smiled, my heart bounced with joy,’ he recalls.
‘When she woke, I couldn’t talk much. I tried but only tears of joy came out.
‘I tried to cuddle her, and was told off by the nurses. Then I cried again, and Emma tried to hug me, so the nurses told her off this time. They didn’t want us disturbing any of her tubes.’
Emma is full of praise for staff at Musgrove Park. ‘The doctors and nurses were phenomenal,’ she says. ‘You could not fault them on anything. They were amazing.
‘I am healing really well now. There must have been somebody looking down on me – only it’s not just my mum now, it’s my whole family.’
After 21 days, Emma was discharged and is now living with Chris, his mother Renza and stepfather in Slough.
She attends a local hospital as an outpatient and has a significant way to go before she makes a complete recovery. But Emma is determined to do so before she marries Chris on July 7 next year.
‘We set the date after the accident,’ says Chris. ‘Life is too short.’
Emma adds: ‘It will be on our fifth anniversary as a couple. I want to be back in my high heels by then, although the doctors say that, because of my injuries, I will now have one foot that is a size 5 and the other that is a size 6. I might have to buy two pairs of shoes.’
The couple also plan to start a family after their wedding. ‘I love children,’ Emma says.
‘That is my ambition now – to have kids.’
‘A football team if possible,’ adds Chris with a smile.
Theirs is a story of an ordinary couple coming through extraordinary tragedy. They believe the best tribute they can pay to lost loved ones is to make every second of their own lives count.
‘Chris is my rock and I can’t imagine a day without him,’ says Emma. ‘Everything has been so overwhelming. If I didn’t have him I think I would have given up.’
‘As a couple, we were always very close but this has made it a completely different ball game,’ adds Chris.
‘People have said to Emma that when she is better they will take her for a girlie day out. What they don’t understand is I am coming with them. I am going to be by Emma’s side 24 hours a day.
‘I have been given a second chance to protect her. I will keep her safe now, even if it’s the last thing I do.’
Additional reporting: Pamela Owen