Rollercoaster crash survivor calls for further support on 50th anniversary of Battersea disaster

Shay Bottomley

A survivor of a rollercoaster disaster which claimed the lives of five children has called for more support for young survivors of traumatic accidents.

On Monday, survivors and families of the deceased will congregate in Battersea Park to commemorate 50 years since Britain’s biggest fairground disaster.

Opened during the Festival of Britain in 1951, the Big Dipper used a system where a rope would pull carriages over the top of the ride, which would then travel forwards around a course before returning to the station on its own accord.

The ride had been in operation for 21 years. However, on the afternoon of Tuesday, May 30, 1972, tragedy struck. Five children were killed and another 13 were injured when the Big Dipper roller coaster broke loose from its haulage rope.

One survivor, Liz Haigh-Reeve, was on the ride when the accident happened. She had travelled from Cookham to the fairground for her 15th birthday with her friend, Alison Comerford, also 15.

Having rushed to the fair to get on the first ride of the day, Liz and Alison put their belongings behind the kiosk and got on the ride.

After riding the rollercoaster, the pair loved the Big Dipper so much that they decided to stay on for a second ride.

With their cart inches away from the top of the rollercoaster, they were suddenly thrust backwards and back through the station.

Despite the best efforts of the brakeman to stop the free-wheeling ride, the back carriage crashed through a barrier, with the other two landing on top of it.

Smothered under the debris, Liz, who was temporarily deafened by the noise of the crash, saw her friend reach out to pull her from the debris.

Suddenly, the platform on which Alison was standing on collapsed. She fell more than 40 feet onto debris and rubble.

After Liz, who climbed down from the ride with a broken arm, was taken to a locked first aid hut, she ‘wiggled away’ from those who were taking care of her and rushed back to the scene of the accident.

With Alison now moved away from the rubble and onto the grass, Liz asked someone to retrieve their belongings before they were taken away in the same ambulance.

“Weirdly, I didn’t have any pain at all from my injuries until I got to the hospital and Alison was taken into theatre,” said Liz.

“By then, we were sort of safe, and then of course the shock and the pain kicked in.

“I have got really quite horrifying pictures in my mind of what was happening and what was there.”

Both teenagers were treated for their injuries, with Alison taken into intensive care. Liz was able to recover, and gave her initial reaction to the Advertiser in the June 2, 1972 edition.

However, despite the best efforts of medical staff, Alison died from her injuries 18 days after the tragedy.

Liz will be attending a tree planting ceremony on Monday, which will feature a plaque with the names of the victims of the Big Dipper tragedy. Ahead of the commemoration, Liz has called for further support for young victims of traumatic incidents.

“I made contact with the two doctors who helped and I had a long conversation with both of them,” she said.

“They’ve both told me that the services today are even worse. I was lucky because my GP gave me a lot of time, but nowadays that would not happen.

“If you were injured in a crime, victim support might be able to help you to get some support. But if you were injured in a coach accident or a car accident, whilst the hospitals would patch you up, nobody would be around for your mental health.

“This trauma has a terrible impact [on mental health] – improving the services for children who have suffered a trauma is something which we must do. Five children died, but I can tell you that the other 25 children who were on it who were traumatised and who didn’t die have been so badly affected. Trauma takes lives, even if you survive.”

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