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How Bury St Edmunds was plunged into grief when 18 members of its rugby club died in the Paris air disaster





It was one of the darkest days in the history of Bury St Edmunds. On March 3, 1974, 18 members of the town’s rugby club died in what was then the world’s worst ever air disaster.

That afternoon the friends had boarded a flight in Paris on their way back from watching a game between England and France.

Shortly after take-off a faulty cargo door blew out on the Turkish Airlines DC-10 causing catastrophic decompression. It plunged into a forest killing all 346 people on board.

The Bury Free Press coverage of the plane crash tragedy that stunned the town
The Bury Free Press coverage of the plane crash tragedy that stunned the town

The tragedy sent shockwaves through the town. The club, the world of rugby and the whole community wrapped their arms around the devastated families, offering all the support they could.

The rugby club set up a disaster fund to give immediate assistance, which had phenomenal support from the public. But the scars ran deep and 50 years later the memories of that terrible day are still raw in the minds of the people most affected.

In and around Bury the disaster left 10 widows, 21 children without their fathers and scores of parents, brothers, sisters, relatives and friends united in grief. Hardly any of the crash victims were identifiable. Their remains were buried in a mass grave in a cemetery outside Paris.

Gordon Ellis, John Cousins and Austin Cornish with pictures of the crash victims beside the Bury rugby club memorial
Gordon Ellis, John Cousins and Austin Cornish with pictures of the crash victims beside the Bury rugby club memorial

On Saturday, the 50th anniversary of the tragedy will be marked by a day of events at the Haberden, home of Bury St Edmunds RUFC.

They will include a memorial service, a special lunch and performances by St Edmundsbury Male Voice Choir before a match between Bury men’s 1st XV and Dorking.

And this season the club’s men’s and women’s first teams will carry the memory of the victims with them each time they run out on to the pitch.They are playing in black kit instead of their usual green and yellow, with their jerseys bearing the names of those who died.

How the Bury Free Press covered the 30th anniversary of the tragedy in 2004
How the Bury Free Press covered the 30th anniversary of the tragedy in 2004

Today, the crash site in the Ermenonville forest lies silent. A simple stone monument stands in tribute to those who died … echoed in design by a memorial unveiled in 2016 at the Haberden.

Many take a moment to visit it every time they go to the ground. And one man who still finds the loss of so many friends hard to bear is John Cousins – the only surviving member of the party who went to France.

He has been back to the scene of the disaster four times, most recently on the 40th anniversary of the tragedy. What struck him was the silence.

“Last time I went, I noticed the birds never sing in the forest. It’s quite a peaceful place now,” he said.

In 1974 John, then a 21 year-old scrum half, and two others had stayed behind planning a couple more days in France before heading home.

He remembers the heart-stopping moment they heard about the disaster. We were watching a match when the news of the crash was announced on the tannoy. We had a French friend with us and he looked after us.

“I had been in the team for two years. Rugby was always a passion of mine,” said John, a past president of the club who runs an antique shop in Ixworth with his brother, and carried on playing for the veterans’ side until he was 55.

“We used to go on tour once a year and normally would play a game there and see an international as well, but this time our match was cancelled.”

The awful irony was that the Bury group had not intended to be on the doomed plane. “We had been in France for two days,” John recalled. “The boys came home early because there was a strike by baggage handlers, so they took an earlier flight.”

He still finds it difficult to talk about the tragedy. “The pain doesn’t go away. You still feel it,” he says.

At the Haberden the victims of the crash are remembered in many, subtle ways. They include Room 18, a meeting room named for the number who died. Inside, 18 coat pegs bear their names.

On the wall is a framed extract from the Bury Free Press report of the disaster, with photographs of them all.

As John speaks, his eyes stray constantly to the faces of his lost friends. He describes how the players felt the need to close ranks in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy.

“At first we found it difficult to get on with newcomers. We were in our own bubble. It was as if only us could know what it felt like.

“But we were playing games virtually straight away. It was quite hard but we knew they would have wanted it.”

As Gordon Ellis, whose father Bryan was among those who died, puts it: “Rugby was in their hearts and in their souls.”

John has fond memories of Bryan, the club’s then chairman. “We used to call him Number One. He organised us,” he says.

Gordon is one of many family members who have kept a close connection with the club. His father died on his eighth birthday.

“My dad was a coach for the under 18s at the time of the crash. I used to come down to the ground with him and help him line the pitches, while my mum Sue would start the teas.

“I also remember coming down here to watch the rugby when my dad was playing. At the time of the crash our team were Suffolk champions.

“The crash was on my birthday so that is always a heavy reminder. I have a sister Anne who was 10 at the time.

“It was hard, hard, hard. As a child you don’t understand what has happened. Losing someone in tragic circumstances when they die before their time is just downright difficult.

“It doesn’t go away. The pain dulls a little, we live our lives. We have had kids and moved on, but it’s always there.

“It was different times, I remember going back to school and everyone being told to be nice to me. It was a personal tragedy, a club tragedy and a community tragedy.

“We can’t imagine what our mothers went through, we can’t imagine the pain they felt. I think adults at that time thought the best way to protect children was not to talk about it.”

He remembers the support and generosity of the rugby club and the whole community.

“Bury was a much smaller town in 1974. Everyone knew everyone – it was a very small town and they did the best they could.”

The children who lost their fathers on that day have remained bound together by their shared loss. “There is an unspoken bond between the children that will always be there,” he said.

He followed in his father’s footsteps and played rugby for Bury, before becoming a coach. “Pulling on that green jersey for the first time was special,” said Gordon, whose two sons have also played at the club.

He has also visited the crash site in France with his family and feels, like John, that it is now a peaceful place.

His connection with the club has continued with sponsorship through his commercial property company Merrifields.

“When I come down here I feel like I’m coming home,” he says. “We’re putting back in for what was given to us.”

And that view is echoed by Austin Cornish, whose father Laurie was killed in the crash.

They both praised the respectful way the club had kept alive memories of those who died.

Austin, too, is now a sponsor through his construction and development company.

He was three years old when his father died – too young to have any clear memories of his dad.

“I can’t remember anything about the crash,” he says.

“If it happened now it would be debated and discussed, and people would be given counselling. There was nothing like that then.

“The club allocated a person from the club to each family to support them. The rugby club is a real community with great community spirit.

“There are a lot of memories here and there are still a lot of people around who were friends of those who died.”

Father of three Austin went on to play for the club and also coach. His eldest son has also played there.

“I started playing rugby when I was about 11 or 12 at school and ended up coming here to the under 18s and 1st and 2nd teams for the next 10 years. I stopped when I started my business,” he said.

For the 40th anniversary of the crash in 2014 Austin organised a fund-raising cycle ride from Ermenonville back to Bury.

The huge amount of sponsorship money they raised for the club and St Nicholas Hospice Care is testament to how the tragedy is still remembered.

“When we came up with the idea it was to raise a few quid,” he says. “Ninety-five people did it. We raised £157,000.

Now he is planning to repeat the ride to mark the 50th anniversary. “I’m doing another one in September with people connected to the club and 65 have signed up so far.

“We have added an extra day this time because we are all 10 years older,” said Austin who has fund-raised for the hospice for 15 years.

“My drive to raise money has always been how me and my family got supported after the air crash … trying to make something good out of something bad.” he says.

The cycle team’s jerseys, like those of this season's first team players, will carry the names of the victims.

PROGRAMME FOR SATURDAY:

12.15pm: A memorial service led by the Rev Tiffer Robinson, of St Mary’s Church, Bury, will be held at the club memorial at the club’s ground, the Haberden, in Bury. There will be a chance to lay flowers in memory of the crash victims.

12.30pm: St Edmundsbury Male Voice Choir to perform three pieces.

12.45pm: A book of respect will be open in the 1974 Suite next to the memorial.

2.55pm: The choir will sing the Bury men’s 1st team players on to the pitch for their match with Dorking. A minute’s silence will take place before kick-off.