A FUEL spillage on one of the main roads through Northumberland may have caused a crash which claimed the lives of a popular elderly couple, an inquest heard yesterday.
Ronald Smailes, 79, and his wife Sheila, 74, died when their car veered on to the wrong side of the A697 and collided head-on with an oncoming car as they drove home last October.
Mr Smailes was driving the Ford Focus north when it lost control on a sweeping bend and ended up in the southbound lane, colliding with a Mazda at Thrunton Woods near Powburn.
Mr and Mrs Smailes, who lived in Victoria Road, Wooler, and were leading members of the Glendale Accordion and Fiddle Club, both died at the scene from their injuries.
The Mazda driver, sales manager James Bye from Ashington, was taken by ambulance to the RVI in Newcastle with two fractured ribs and bruising to his face following the collision.
Yesterday an inquest in Alnwick was told the most likely cause of the accident was Mr Smailes’ car tyres losing their grip after hitting a spillage of diesel fuel as he negotiated the left-hand bend.
A Northumbria Police investigation found that the road surface was affected by diesel deposited by “any number” of unknown northbound vehicles, which could have caused Mr Smailes to slide into the wrong lane.
He was trying to regain control of the vehicle when it ploughed into the Mazda driven by Mr Bye, who told police that he saw the Ford Focus coming towards him in the wrong lane and swerving out of control. Police accident investigation expert, PC Stuart Cockburn, told the inquest that, in his opinion, Mr Smailes’ tyres lost traction because of the contaminated road surface, and his car slid out to the right.
North Northumberland coroner, Tony Brown, said the police investigation had ruled out medical or eyesight problems, drugs or alcohol or mechanical failures as causes of the accident. He said: “I am inclined to agree with the conclusion of the police investigation, which says that the most likely cause of these two tragic deaths has been a loss of control by Mr Smailes’ car.
“It appears to have slid out of control on a diesel spillage of unknown origin, which is never going to be traced.”
The deaths of Mr Smailes, a retired water board worker, and his wife, a former shop assistant, left the Glendale community shocked and saddened.
They were leading members of the accordion and fiddle club which meets every month in Wooler’s Glendale Hall. Mr Smailes had been the club’s compere for about seven years, and his wife was the secretary. Mrs Smailes was also involved with other local organisations, including Roddam Women’s Institute.
After yesterday’s inquest their son David, who lives in Powburn, said that, as well as their musical activities, their main interests were their grandchildren and dogs. He said: “They were a very well-liked couple who were active and well known in the local community.”
Verdict: accidental deaths.