A1(M) Bowburn crash: Three-death smash remembered a year on – BBC

By Jonathan Swingler & Duncan Leatherdale
BBC Look North

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The horror A1(M) crash caused by a driver on his phone
Three people were killed and several others injured when a lorry ploughed into a queue of stationary traffic on a motorway on 15 July 2021. The truck driver had been browsing dating sites on his phone and failed to stop. The BBC has heard from some of those involved, including the killer.
At 18:15 GMT on a hot, sunny summer evening the busy A1(M) near Durham had been brought to a standstill by a spillage of handbrake fluid.
Police call handler Hilary Thompson was on her way to start her 12-hour night shift – she normally answers 999 calls but on this day she would be making one.
Molly Smith, a 26-weeks pregnant physiotherapist, was heading home to Tyneside via a pet store to get her dog a birthday present, but she would end the day in hospital.
Elsewhere among the stalled cars, vans and lorries, David Daglish and his partner Elaine Sullivan were on their way home to Seaham and Paul Mullen was travelling to Washington, but they would never make it out of the tailback.
Because of Ion Nicu Onut, all three would soon be dead.
Since joining the A1 at York some 55 miles south, Onut had barely been off his mobile phone.
As he neared the exit for Bowburn and Durham service station, he was immersed in setting up dates online, and he failed to notice the traffic ahead of him had ground to a halt.
Deadly Browsing: The Lorry Driver
How a lorry driver looking at dating sites went on to kill three people in a crash.
Available now on BBC iPlayer (UK Only)
Ms Thompson could see Onut fast approaching in her mirrors.
"I thought to myself 'wow, he's going fast for the distance, he's got to stop for this traffic'," she said, adding: "And then I thought 'he's not going to stop'."
Travelling at 58mph, Onut smashed first into Mr Daglish and Ms Sullivan's Vauxhall Crossland, sparking a ferocious fireball.
The HGV then ploughed into Mr Mullen's Toyota Hilux which was crushed against another lorry.
Two other cars – including Ms Smith's – were also hit before the fertiliser-laden lorry finally came to a standstill on the central reservation 330ft (100m) away.
The cab erupted into flames and the Vauxhall had been rendered an unrecognisable mass of twisted black metal.
Michael Hosty, another lorry driver, kicked in Onut's windscreen and pulled him from the wreckage.
"It was like a comet on fire," Mr Hosty told police a short while later.
Ms Smith was jolted with the impact from behind, and heard a deafening screech of crushing metal as she suddenly found her air-conditioned car surrounded by fire.
She scrambled out of the vehicle in fear of an explosion, and ran. She was later taken to hospital with a head wound.
PC Kate Warren was the first police officer on the scene having started her shift shortly before in a "really good mood" after spending the day enjoying the sun in her garden.
She was on her way down the A1 when she noticed a plume of thick, black smoke in the distance.
As she neared she could smell the fire and feel its intense heat.
"It was like opening the oven door," she later recalled.
On police bodycam footage, an officer walking through the scene of carnage can be heard saying: "It's literally like a bomb has gone off."
It was obvious people had been killed, identifying the victims was a priority.
"We are always in a fight with social media to get to families and deliver the message before anyone else does," Det Con Natalie Horner told the BBC North East & Cumbria Impact Team.
Police were able to identify Mr Mullen, 51, quickly but Mr Daglish, 57, and Ms Sullivan, 59, and their car were burnt beyond recognition.
They were identified when police found their dog Keeva dead in the road and a scan of the pet's microchip led officers to her owners.
Ms Horner said: "Not only are we going to someone's house and letting them know their loved ones have died, we are getting this information from a chip in an animal. It was absolutely horrendous."
Onut was found a short distance away from the carnage, shaken but somehow unscathed.
"Everything happened super fast," he told officers. "I didn't have time to react for such a big machine."
While Onut was cared for by paramedics, as a matter of routine police confiscated his mobile phone, unaware what it would reveal.
"It could just have been a momentary lapse in attention, sneezing, a wasp," PC Warren said.
"I didn't know why the accident had happened and he hadn't been forthcoming in saying so, I felt a bit sorry for him."
At about 19:00, with confirmation people had been killed, Onut was arrested at the scene on suspicion of causing death by dangerous driving.
A search of his phone revealed the full story.
He had been on his mobile for 40 minutes, flicking between dating websites, editing his profile and spending almost £50 to engage with other users.
Onut, who is originally from Romania but was living in Galashiels in the Scottish borders, was jailed for eight years and 10 months after admitting three counts of causing death by dangerous driving.
"I can't turn the time back to change anything, I wish I could," Onut said from prison.
He said watching dashcam footage of the crash "destroyed" him and using his phone was a "really bad choice".
"I want to apologise, to say I'm really sorry, I feel really bad for what happened," Onut said.
"I feel bad for the people who lost their loved ones, people who were injured and have to suffer back flashes and injuries for the rest of their lives. It's really hard.
"Living for the rest of your life with that in your head is not easy either."
Junior Sullivan, whose parents were killed in the crash, said Onut had to "live with the fact he has killed three people and affected loads of other people's lives".
Mr Sullivan said Mr Daglish gave him "all the life lessons" while Ms Sullivan was "small, feisty" and had an "infectious laugh".
Seeing Onut speak about what happened does not change Mr Sullivan's view of him, but he hopes it serves as a lesson to others.
"It doesn't take away from what he's done, but if people look at it and think 'well actually I don't want to be that person in prison to have killed three people and have that on my conscience' then hopefully they will take something away from that," he said.
"Unfortunately, it will take more accidents for people to realise.
"That's the sad truth about it."
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