‘I just remember the sky going black and the thunder...then all hell broke loose’

never forgotten Ruby Currell at the Freckleton Air Disaster Memorial
never forgotten Ruby Currell at the Freckleton Air Disaster Memorial
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Ruby Currell remembers the noise like it was yesterday.

That fateful morning on August 23, 1944 had started much like any other.

Rescuers at the crash site

Rescuers at the crash site

Ruby, then aged just five, was set on the infant’s class at Freckleton’s Holy Trinity School.

It was a bright morning, sunshine beaming through the windows, the excited chatter of young children all around.

But suddenly it changed.

From nowhere, the clouds gathered, so quickly in fact that teachers had to the turn the lights on in the classroom.

The lightening followed –and then the thunder.

Even today, almost exactly seven decades on from the disaster, Ruby still struggles to hear the sound of a thunderstorm without being transported back to that morning.

For as peels of thunder pierced the sky, the most horrific event imaginable was about to unfold.

At around 10.30am, as youngsters were in their lessons, two newly refurbished B-24 heavy bombers, being made ready for delivery to the 2nd Combat Division, departed USAAF Base Air Depot 2 at Warton Aerodrome on a test flight.

But due to the approaching violent storm, both were recalled just minutes later.

By the time they had returned to the vicinity of the aerodrome, however, the wind and rain had significantly reduced visibility.

Newspaper reports described winds approaching 60mph and flash flooding in Blackpool.

It was to prove catastrophic.

One of the planes, a Consolidated B-24 Liberator, crashed on to the school, claiming the lives of 38 of Ruby’s schoolmates as well as two teachers and seven other adults.

In total, 61 people lost their lives in the tragedy.

“I just remember the sky going black, and amid the thunder, all hell breaking loose,” said Ruby, who was left with burns to a leg, an arm and her face.

“I saw one of the girls fall out of her desk and I dived under mine and made sure I stayed there.

“There was rubble all over the place and just enough room for two men to put their heads around the door and eventually help me out, although I took a lot of persuading.

“I remember being carried across a field to a waiting ambulance and then ending up in hospital.

“If I had been in the middle of the classroom I would have had no chance, but as I was closer to the wall, I survived it.

“I spent six months in hospital and it was only when I went back to school and saw who wasn’t there any more that the full impact of the crash hit me.

“It is a memory which will never leave me.”

Ruby, whose maiden name was Whittle, grew up in Clitheroes Lane and returned to live in Freckleton 11 years ago after leaving the village in 1957.

She met her late husband Brian when was a serving RAF man based at Warton and the couple were married for more than 50 years up to Brian’s death from cancer last year.

Ruby, now 75, will be at the memorial service in the village tomorrow morning and has been paying her own silent tribute to the victims this week as well as giving a talk at the village library about her experience.

“It’s so important that we remember the children who were there that day who weren’t so fortunate,” she said.

“As long I have breath in my body I will do anything I can to make sure they are remembered.”

Minutes before a disaster

At 10.30 on the morning of Wednesday, August 23, 1944 – 70 years ago tomorrow – a USAF B-24 Liberator bomber was cleared for take-off from Warton’s Base Air Depot 2 (BAD 2).

Less than five minutes after the B-24 left Warton, a telephone call reached the base from BAD 1, Burtonwood, warning of a violent storm approaching the Preston area and immediately an order was issued recalling the aircraft.

By the time the B-24 arrived back over Warton, the violent storm was at its height and the whole area was plunged into darkness despite it being the heart of summer.

As the plane reached Freckleton it was hit by a bolt of lightning and the B-24’s fate was sealed; already flying low to the ground with it’s wings near vertical, the 25-ton bomber partly demolished three houses and the Sad Sack snack bar.

Part of the plane destroyed the infants wing of Freckleton Holy Trinity School and the whole area erupted into a sea of flames as the fuel from the ruptured tanks ignited.

The majority of the child victims – along with Miss Jenny Hall, a teacher who had arrived at the Freckleton School only the day before – as well as a number of civilians killed in the snack bar, were buried in a communal grave in the village’s Holy Trinity Churchyard.

The three US aircrew were buried in a US Cemetery in the South of England.

The official report into the crash said the exact cause of the crash was unknown, but concluded the pilot had not fully realised the danger the storm posed until too late.

Tomorrow’s events

Tomorrow’s commemorative service begins at 10.30am and will be conducted adjacent to the disaster memorial grave at the entrance to Memorial Park

Holy Trinity CE Church, Holy Family RC Freckleton Methodist and St Paul’s CE Warton will all be represented at the event, as well as the area’s four schools.