ONE of the survivors of the horror smash on the M40 has described how she crawled through the wreckage in a bid to save her 11 dogs.
The three women had thought they were only two minutes away from being rescued by the RAC and were gathering personal belongings as the lorry struck, injuring them and killing some of their dogs, before jack-knifing across the road.
Ms Russell-Smith ran to the back of the motorhome only to find ‘there was no back’, and went onto ‘automatic pilot’ which helped get her through the carnage and stress of the next few hours.
She spotted one Cardigan Corgi, obviously in pain, in the outside lane and ran out, scooped her and sat with her in a blanket as she waited for help to arrive.
"Time seemed to cease to exist,” she said.
The three women and 11 dogs had broken down on the motorway on their way to a Corgi specialty in Welshpool, and were hit three and a half hours later as they continued to wait for roadside assistance. Ms Egorova (Twinkie), who spent the summer helping out at Ms Croft-Elliott and Ms Russell-Smith's kennel and had returned to this country to go to the specialty, was initially in intensive care having suffered various injuries including a broken back. On Monday she was moved to another ward where she is said to be in ‘remarkably good spirits’. She suffered three fractures to her spine, a broken leg, pelvis injuries and six broken ribs.
Ms Croft-Elliott is described as feeling ‘very fragile’ and both she and Ms Russell-Smith feel ‘battered’.
Two dogs were killed when the lorry demolished the vehicle and one died when it was hit by a car. Another, Marrow Bloody Mary (Suka), had to be put down the following day due to her serious injuries.
One Cardigan Corgi, Darren, was found seven hours later unharmed.
The show world leapt into action to help the three stricken women as soon as it became known what had happened early on Saturday morning.
Travelling in the motorhome in reinforced cages were four Cardigan Corgis, four English Toy Terrier puppies, two Poodles and a Chinese Crested. The three killed were a Corgi, a Toy Poodle and the Crested, Incanto Del Mondo Eva One And Only; the latter had arrived from Russia only a week before and had been unbeaten on the Continent during her short showing career.The Corgi was Int Ch Telltail Sweetdreams (Sweetie) at Llaneirwg, owned by Ms Croft-Elliott with Paula O'Donnell in the US who bred her. She won the group at Scottish Kennel Club and had one CC plus various wins abroad.
Darren, who went missing, is Ch/Am/Lux/Hung Ch Yasashiikuma Telltail Dbledare (Darren), is current top Cardigan 2013, group winner, BOB at Crufts and has had wins abroad including BOB at the World Show this year. Corgi puppy Waggerland Last Laugh for Llaneirwg (Smirk) also survived. She has done well as a youngster, including being Pup of the Year heat runner-up twice and RBPIS all breeds at Belfast. She was bred in the Netherlands and is co-owned by Ms Croft-Elliott and Hanno Dijkhorst.
The Toy Poodle who died was Ch Argoel Road Rage – who won the CC at Crufts last year – and was co-owned by Ms Russell-Smith and Tom Isherwood.
Ms Croft-Elliott's and Ms Russell-Smith's 12th dog, a Jack Russell, had been staying with a friend for the weekend.
When word spread about what had happened people drove, unbidden, to the scene to help.
"We can't begin to thank everyone individually for support and offers of help, but three cheers to Mel Spavin and Lee Raymond, Margaret and Andy Anderson, June Caffel, Hollie Kavanagh, Gavin and Sara Robertson and DogLost who outdid themselves," Ms Russell-Smith said on Sunday.
The two women’s main priority was looking after their dogs, and it was not until Sunday that they attended their local hospital suffering from various strains and bruises.
"Our backs are very sore and we can hardly move our necks," Ms Russell-Smith told DOG WORLD on Sunday. "The paramedics checked us over at the scene and wanted us to go to hospital, but you don't when you've got dogs, do you.”
Ms Russell-Smith explained that the pair often travel to shows at night because the roads are quiet and it is the natural time for dogs to sleep. They had been travelling only about 30 minutes from their home in Buckinghamshire when the clutch on the 28ft motorhome began slipping, giving rise to fears that the gearbox was going.
"We had picked up the motorhome that day after its MOT,” Ms Russell-Smith said.
They phoned the RAC who said they would attend within 90 minutes and advised them to get out of the vehicle.
"But to get the dogs out would have meant opening the door onto the inside lane, which we didn’t want to do,” Ms Russell-Smith said. "So we thought we would sit and wait. Quite honestly, if we had been sitting on the hard shoulder and watched the lorry plough into the motorhome killing the dogs I don’t think we would ever have got over it.
"We sat for three hours and nobody came. It was bitterly cold. I was in the driver’s seat and Lisa the passenger’s, and Twinkie was sitting just behind us. In the last call from the RAC they said they would be with us in 45 minutes and 43 minutes were up and I said ‘They should be here in a minute’, so we started gathering our stuff together, bags and phones and so on when there was an almighty crash.
”I leapt out of the driver’s door to go round the back to see how the dogs were – but there was no back; it had gone.
"I went round to the passenger side to tell Lisa to help me look for the dogs and Twinkie was lying across her unconscious and Lisa was on the phone summoning the emergency services.
"I went off to search for the dogs. I think I went into automatic pilot, which got me through what happened next and enabled me to cope with picking up crushed little bodies.”
Ms Russell-Smith spotted Suka, the Corgi who had to be put to sleep the next day, in the outside lane.
"She was obviously in pain so I scooped her up, wrapped her in a blanket and sat with her. A lorry driver stopped to help with the search and suddenly lots of people were around being wonderful and helping. Time seemed to cease to exist.
"Flo our Toy Poodle was fine so I sat with her on my knee as well and waited for the emergency services.
"We had a litter of 12-week-old puppies in the overhang of the lorry and I crawled into the space thinking they could not possibly have survived but suddenly their little heads popped up and said, ‘Hello mum!’.”
But bad news followed swiftly. "We heard soon afterwards that our Cardigan Sweetie had been hit by a car. The Toy Poodle Rage was dead and our Chinese Crested powderpuff puppy whom we’d only just picked up from Kortrijk. They were killed on impact. There were no dogs left in crates after the impact; they were broken and mangled beyond recognition.
"Darren, Smirk and Sweetie had taken off along the southbound carriageway. Apparently a lady at junction 11 saw Smirk, opened her car door and said, ‘Well hello!’ as Smirk jumped in. She wasn’t even dirty. Coincidentally, she took her to the same vet as the one Suka went to.
"Darren was still missing but DogLost organised people very, very quickly. Eventually they found him – the way it was handled was absolutely incredible because he was so afraid. They were able to get Lisa out to where he was and they were reunited. We’re going to take him to a chiropractor as we think his back may be a bit stiff.”
Ms Russell-Smith and Ms Croft-Elliott say they are still in a state of shock and ‘slightly battered’.
"But we are aware of how lucky we are,” Ms Russell-Smith said. "The police kept saying they’d never seen anyone survive a crash like that.
"Lisa is very, very frail, not in great shape, and feels so responsible for Twinkie. But Twinkie is in great spirits, remarkably good spirits, and is out of intensive care.
"All our remaining dogs are now at home hogging the sofa, not wanting to let us out of their sight. The ETT puppies are in your face as usual; I think they think they went on a fairground ride.
"The support has been overwhelming. I can’t even begin to answer everybody’s messages. Lisa has received more than 11,000 emails. When I’ve had five minutes I’ve sat down and tried to go through all the messages but it’s an enormous task. And, of course, every time we try to read the messages we end up sobbing again. It’s overwhelming.
"We’re staggered to find out how many people care. The dog world is incredible."
There has been much criticism of the RAC on various social media sites after its failure to send help within the time the vehicle was immobile. Ms Russell-Smith said the company told her they were having difficulty finding a vehicle to help them because of the dogs.
"I told them all the dogs were in crates and they said that would be OK but that the vehicle would have to come from a long way away,” she said. "During our wait the Highways Agency phoned a couple of times to see what our situation was.”
The RAC told DW: "We always attend broken-down vehicles carrying animals. As this incident involved a large motorhome we had to ensure the correct recovery vehicle attended. Sadly for all concerned, the recovery vehicle was on its way when the accident happened. Our thoughts are with the injured passenger and the owners of the dogs that died.
"We are extremely saddened to learn that a young woman has been injured and that four dogs have lost their lives as a result of this incident. We had despatched a specialist recovery vehicle to attend, but unfortunately the accident occurred while the vehicle was en route to the scene.” The following day the company said it was reading comments and views made on social media sites.
"There is an ongoing internal review of this matter but at this time we would like to clarify the rumours that a patrol vehicle was sent out and left the scene are false. It is absolutely RAC policy to attend breakdowns when animals are involved - the delay occurred because we were arranging for a suitable specialist vehicle to attend the large motorhome. The recovery team arrived shortly after the accident but were stood down by the police who were dealing with the incident.
"We are in phone contact with the member and have expressed our deep sympathy for her and her fellow passengers in this tragic accident. We are very sorry to hear that a fourth dog has now had to be put down.”
The crash shut all three lanes of the carriageway after the lorry jack-knifed. The 26-year-old lorry driver, believed to have been working for an English freight distribution company, was not hurt.
The police told DW: "We are in the middle of the investigation to find out what happened. The lorry driver has been voluntarily interviewed and he has given an account of what happened and that will form part of our investigation to see where else this may go. He was not arrested.
"Traffic collisions take a long time to investigate because of what is involved, reconstructing the collision and so forth; it takes a while to come to a conclusion.”
The Kennel Club said it had spoken to the RAC, AA and Green Flag about their policies regarding the transportation of dogs following a breakdown.
"We will relay this in due course when clarification has been received,” a spokesman said.
"We wish to extend its sympathies to Lisa Croft-Elliott, Carrie Russell-Smith and Anastasia Egorova. Tragic accidents of this type are, thankfully, few and far between, and we wish a speedy recovery to those involved.”
Several fundraising initiatives have been launched to help the three women. Ms Croft-Elliott’s and Ms Russell-Smith’s, which aims to raise £20,000 and had nearly £6,000 at the time of going to press, can be found at www.fundrazr.com/campaigns/1eKv8
Twinkie’s can be found at www.cardiganwelshcorgiassoc.co.uk/anastasia.php