Exactly 20 years ago at 1.38pm a peaceful afternoon was shattered by one of the worst tragedies the borough has seen when two trains collided outside Purley rail station.

The 12.50 Horsham to Victoria service was just pulling out of the station when the 12.17 Littlehampton service, travelling at a high speed, ploughed into the back of it.

Carnage ensued; two of the rear Horsham carriages were tossed from the tracks, six of the Littlehampton carriages were derailed.

Bewildered residents on Whytecliffe Road and Glenn Avenue, alerted by the terrible noise caused by the smash, saw the tangled carriages career down the hill and topple into their back gardens.

The catastrophe was reported by our sister paper the Croydon News with the poignant headline: Death in the afternoon.

At the time a Whytecliffe resident said the first thing they heard was an awful noise.

“I thought it was thunder. It was like nothing I have ever heard before. I looked out of the window and saw the horrible mess.”

Sixteen-year-old Sam Muggridge, who lived just behind the station, told the local paper how she looked on in horror as bloodsoaked survivors stumbled into the station.

“They were screaming and staggering and covered in blood.

“I was standing on the platform when I heard a loud bang.

“When I looked I saw the carriages of one train topple off the bank. Then I heard all the trees crashing down.

“The next thing I saw was people trying to get out and walk along the track back to the station.”

Five people died and 88 needed hospital treatment, 33 of those were kept in hospital overnight.

Blame was firmly laid on the Littlehampton train driver Robert Morgan who pleaded guilty to manslaughter.

He had no memory of the incident and his conviction was later quashed after it was discovered that there was a fault with the signal warning system outside the station.

He was released after just four months in jail.

Emergency services rallied magnificently to the challenge of treating the injured and the dying and local residents did all they could to assist.

One of those was world boxing champion Duke McKenzie whose Glenn Avenue home backed onto the Brighton line.

He said: “It was pretty traumatic.

“I leaped out like I was a paramedic or something but when I saw the devastation I did not know what to do.

“I remember speaking to a lady who was 50 or 60 years old and was in a bad way, I was trying to calm her down.”

Mayday hospital was put on red alert and the bulk of its 2,000 staff rushed to work to help the victims, with members of the public queuing up to give blood.

More than 50 people were taken to the hospital, pushing its facilities to breaking point.

The hospital did such a superb job that they received a personal visit from the Prime Minister at the time, Margaret Thatcher on the Sunday.

Princess Diana visited staff and survivors at the hospital on Monday congratulating them on their hard work.

A short memorial service led by Christ Church vicar the Rev Charles Trefusis will be held at Purley Rail Station at 1.30pm on Wednesday March 4.

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