A schoolgirl died and her cousin was critically injured when a lorry crashed into their school bus on a notoriously dangerous road in the North today.
Five other children and the bus driver were hurt when the articulated lorry ploughed into the back of the bus as it turned into school gates.
The 44-year-old lorry driver was arrested at the scene on suspicion of dangerous driving and later released pending further police investigation.
Nicola Murray, who had just turned 16, died following the crash on the Ballygawley Road at Cabragh, Co Tyrone, and her nine-year-old cousin was critically injured.
The little girl was tonight being treated in Belfast’s Royal Victoria Hospital after being transferred there for specialist care.
The crash sent shockwaves through the tight-knit local community and led to calls for action to improve safety on a stretch of road which has claimed numerous lives in recent years – including Irish Rugby legend Mick Doyle, who died in 2004 at the same spot as Nicola.
The school bus, carrying 15 pupils, was turning into the gates of St Mary’s Primary School, where it was dropping off seven children, when the lorry slammed into its rear, sending it crashing into a garden.
Nicola and seven other pupils were on their way to St Ciaran’s High School a few miles away in Ballygawley.
Pupils at the school were shocked at the loss of one of their number and the local Southern Education & Library Board sent counsellors in to help classmates cope with the loss.
School principal Aiden Taggart said: “The staff and students deeply regret the sudden death of one of our students.
“Our thoughts, prayers and the sympathy of the entire school community is extended to the family at this very difficult time. Our thoughts and prayers are also with the students and families of those who have been injured.”
He said his pupils were being supported by the school’s pastoral care team and the Critical Incident Response Team sent in by the education board.
Nicola lived a short distance from where she died and worked weekends waiting at tables in the nearby Quinn’s Corner pub and restaurant.
A shocked member of staff said: “She was a lovely wee girl, we are all upset.”
Northern Ireland First Minister the Rev Ian Paisley sent a personal message of condolence to the dead girl’s grieving family.
Mr Paisley said: “Tragic events like this bring home to all of us the dangers on our roads. I am deeply saddened to learn of today’s tragedy involving the school bus.”
The DUP leader added: “My thoughts and prayers are with the families of those affected. On behalf of everyone in Northern Ireland, I want to assure the families concerned of our sympathy, particularly the families who have lost a loved one.
“They are in our thoughts and prayers at this sad time. I hope and pray that those who have been injured will make a swift and speedy recovery.”
Stormont Education Minister Caitriona Ruane expressed her shock and offered condolences to the family of the dead teenager.
Ms Ruane, who travelled to the area and spoke with parents of children affected, said: “I am deeply upset by the news of this morning’s tragic accident. My thoughts are with the family of the teenage girl whose life has been tragically cut short and with those of the other children injured.”
She said she had spoken to the principals of both schools to offer her support and condolences.
Politicians from the Fermanagh and South Tyrone constituency all expressed shock, including Environment Minister Arlene Foster who said she had driven past the scene minutes before the crash.
“My thoughts are with everyone involved in this horrific crash. This must be a time of great anguish for the children, their families and all the pupils and teachers.”
She added: “My own shock at the news has been even more stark as I drove past the Ballygawley Road earlier this morning. My heart goes out to everyone affected by this tragedy.”
A multimillion-pound roads improvement scheme which will turn the road into a dual carriageway got under way earlier this month.
But Ulster Unionist MLA Tom Elliott said there needed to be urgent interim measures to stop the carnage.
“We simply cannot afford to wait a further two or three years until the new road is constructed before some measures are introduced.”
The road carries a high volume of traffic, he said, adding: “The real prospect in the coming months of additional construction vehicles/machinery will claim more lives and injuries unless affirmative action is taken.”
Sean McGuigan, a Sinn Féin councillor, knew Nicola and grew up with her mother.
“There is a hollow feeling. I can only imagine what the family is feeling. I grew up with the mother, the children and my children grew up together, went to school together, went to parties and played together – this is very hard to understand.”