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Interviews

NEILL COLLINS REFLECTS ON COACH BLAZE

14 October 2023

Interviews

NEILL COLLINS REFLECTS ON COACH BLAZE

14 October 2023

It has been a week since the Reds had a narrow and very lucky escape from a coach fire as we travelled back from Exeter City last Saturday.

Just over two hours into the journey, the vehicle was forced to pull over onto the hard shoulder of the M5 as players sitting at the back raised the alarm before a terrifying blaze took hold once everyone had been safely evacuated.

Smoke billowed into the night sky and flames tore through the coach – destroying everything left on board – as medical equipment including gas and air ignited, further fuelling the inferno.

Players and staff alike huddled at the side of the motorway, left contemplating the potential horrors had they not got off in time, and watching on helplessly as personal belongings were incinerated before their eyes.

“First and foremost, we’re very fortunate that everyone’s fine – everyone’s good,” said Neill Collins. “From our point of view, when you look back at these things, they say that things can always be worse, and it’s definitely true in this case.

“No one foresees anything like that happening, but thankfully everyone was able to stay calm and get off the bus. The police came and made sure everyone was safe. We obviously lost a lot of personal items, which isn’t the ideal experience for anyone to go through, but everyone handled it really well and we managed to get home safe.

“The boys at the back said the bus was on fire and the engine lights were coming on, so the bus driver did an excellent job of getting pulled over as quickly as possible enabling us to get off the bus as quickly as possible.

“It all happened, I’d say, within a minute. There was a problem, we pulled over and got everyone off the bus and got everyone to safety, and before you know it the bus was on fire – it was as quick as that.”

As well as personal possessions, Club equipment – including our white away kit, warm-up gear and replica footballs (which could be heard exploding in the heat) – and football boots were engulfed in the flames.

Add to that the laptops of staff who were working on board at the time, which were left behind as everyone fled the smouldering vehicle.

“You start with the most basic things like football boots – I think some players lost three or four pairs of football boots and anyone who buys them know they’re very expensive,” continued Collins.

“You go into the equipment that we take; the equipment manager does an amazing job. There’s the fitness side of it and their equipment, the coaching staff and media staff have lost laptops, I’ve lost my phone that’s got everything on it, my hard drive with all my work. There’s some painful lessons.

“In hindsight, you can say you wish you’d grabbed this or that, but I think everyone did a really good job.

“Jon Russell was on the side of the motorway with no shoes on – that’s how quickly it happened; he had bin bags on his feet!

“It was certainly not the way we expected to spend our Saturday night!”

Collins is no stranger to travelling adversity, having encountered difficulties on several occasions whilst working at Tampa Bay Rowdies.

Flights to away games were the norm – as were cancellations and long stays at airports – but there is one particular incident that always sticks in the Scotsman’s mind.

“When you talk about the experience I had in Tampa, I wasn’t involved in a fire, but we had three or four travelling ordeals where you had to come together,” he recalled.

“We had a hurricane come through Tampa and one of our staff, his house was in the eye of the storm, and he thought he was going to lose his house. The Club evacuated everyone, but then we also had to fly to California that weekend – bearing in mind we’d just been in the middle of a week where we had to board up our houses.

“It’s slightly different, but the principles are the same that people are out of their comfort zone or two or three travelling trips where people were on the road for 14 hours or whatever. So, the other night, getting home at 4am wasn’t ideal, but I feel as though I’ve been through this.

“It’s no coincidence that we’ve had some great away performances, but on Saturday night the players and coaching staff stayed calm and stuck together, and I think it’s a credit to the players who are here, the players who have come in and some of the work that’s been done in the past year. So, hopefully we continue to grow as a team.”

Many thanks to Cheltenham Town FC, who kindly provided their coach to enable to safe return to Barnsley of our players and staff.


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