The 16-year-old coach, which had a capacity to carry 52 people including its driver, had 53 individuals on board when it left the A3 near Hindhead in Surrey at 11.50pm last night and smashed into an oak tree on an embankment.
Investigators were last night trying to establish whether the extra passenger could have been a factor in the collision. The coach, operated by Liverpool company MerseyPride, had been chartered to bring home a group who attended this weekend’s Bestival event on the Isle of Wight.
A Surrey Police spokeswoman said: “The coach involved in the collision had 51 seats, excluding the driver. At this time, 53 people have been accounted for.”
Emergency workers were confronted with terrible scenes when they arrived at the accident site north of the Hindhead tunnel. Police said some passengers had suffered “life-changing” injuries and were expected to lose limbs as a result of the impact.
Many of those on board were asleep as the coach made its way north after crossing by ferry from the Isle of Wight to Portsmouth. A fleet of ambulances was used to bring the injured to six hospitals across south England, of which up to 23 walking wounded were later discharged.
The driver, who was today named as 60-year-old Colin Daulby, and two passengers were declared dead at the scene while a fourth badly-injured passenger was airlifted to hospital in Southampton.
Inspector Richard Mallett, of Surrey Police said: “Some people were unconscious when they were taken away. We believe some people might lose limbs and certainly there are some life-changing injuries amongst the survivors.”
Mr Daulby, from Warrington, was semi-retired and is understood to have started working for MerseyPride in the last six months. The company said it did not expect that driver fatigue had played a role in the tragedy since Mr Daulby had been staying with his sister in Portsmouth during the festival and had a “good rest”.
David Hannell, the company’s owner, said: “We ourselves are devastated. I’ve been up all night worried sick about what’s been happening. Colin was ideal for us because his sister lived in Portsmouth so he had somewhere to stay. So it wasn’t as if he had to drive down the day before, he was already there and according to his sister he was well rested.”
The road, one of the busiest in the south, remained closed for much of today while investigators dealt with the aftermath of the collision. Two of the bodies of the deceased remained inside the coach until mid-afternoon because they were trapped in the wreckage.
No other vehicles were involved in the accident, which is understood to have destroyed much of the front of the coach. Police last night ruled out the state of the dual carriageway or driving conditions as a cause of the crash.
Insp Mallett said: “We don’t think that the road conditions or the weather were a factor in this.”