Decision which saved John’s life and helped a community

REMAINING REFLECTIVE: John Cousins, who lost 18 of his friends in the fatal Turkish Airlines Flight 981, ahead of the 40th anniversary of the disaster and, inset, how the Bury Free Press covered the air crash in the days following the disaster
REMAINING REFLECTIVE: John Cousins, who lost 18 of his friends in the fatal Turkish Airlines Flight 981, ahead of the 40th anniversary of the disaster and, inset, how the Bury Free Press covered the air crash in the days following the disaster
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“I often wonder how my friends would look now, that still sticks with me.”

The pensive words of John Cousins reflecting on the effects of that fatal day almost four decades ago on March 3, 1974.

Having taken in England’s Five Nations Championship 12-12 draw with France at the Parc des Princes with the rest of Bury St Edmunds Rugby Club’s travelling party the previous day, Cousins — along with vice-president Albert Sprigings and Ron Freeman — elected to ignore strikes by engineers at London Airport, choosing instead to remain in the French capital and enjoy a local match at the City’s Racing Club, a decision that would ultimately save their lives.

“Because I was self employed there was not as much of a rush for me to get back so suddenly,” explained Cousins. “The strike all happened a bit quickly and so others took the decision to fly back early, not wanting to risk not getting back.

“I was sitting in the crowd when it was announced over the tannoy.

“They were pretty sure what plane it was straight away and so we knew it was our friends who were involved.

“The whole crowd were in shock and we were just in disbelief.”

Like the rest of the world, the then 21-year-old was left to watch on in horror as news emerged the Turkish Airlines DC10 on its regular flight from Ankara to London via Paris had come down just minutes after take-off, leaving a mile-long trail of devastation through the forest of Ermenonville, claiming the lives of all 345 passengers, 176 British, 18 who were the players and officials from the club.

“I was declared as dead in the original reports so I had to phone home to tell my mum I was alive, she was screaming with relief that I was okay,” recalls Cousins in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. “At the time, I just felt a huge sense of relief.

“I never felt guilty as to why it wasn’t me and since the disaster the families have always been amazing to me.

“As you get older, you begin to reflect more and you think ‘why wasn’t it me ?’ But I was just one of the lucky ones and things have to go on.

“Back then it was all a bit of a blur if I’m honest, we got the train back and I had to drive one of the player’s cars back to Bury.”

What was to greet the trio was a town in mourning, trying to come to terms with the devastating realisation that a tight knit community like Bury St Edmunds, considerably smaller than it is today, had been directly affected by the worst air disaster in history.

But while some remained in a state of disbelief, Cousins, a relatively young man, found himself back at the rugby club surrounded with the reminder of the friends he had lost.

“Coming back was obviously incredibly difficult, but the families were amazing to me and the whole community became involved,” he added. “It would have been easy to close yourself away and mope around but it wasn’t the right thing to do.

“Some people found it too hard to return to the club, but I felt I needed to keep things going.

“I also think some of the families took comfort in seeing me as someone who was with their loved ones.

“There was a wonderful character in Chris Tilbrook who kept the club going in the aftermath of the disaster.

“He lost his brother in the air crash and he did a lot to keep the club going, as did a lot of people.

“People make the comparison between the incident and the Munich air crash in 1958 (in which 11 Manchester United players, known as the Busby babes, and staff died) but I think this would have hit the town a lot more because there would have been 100,000 people who would have known someone involved in the crash or someone in the town affected.

“Bury was a lot smaller than it is now and so the whole community were hit hard by the disaster it was a difficult time.

“For me it was about keeping busy at the time and there was a lot to do, there was a strong need to want to keep the club going.

“A lot of people did a lot of things to help and there was a real sense of community spirit.”

That spirit was felt not only in Bury St Edmunds but far and wide as people answered the calls of club secretary at the time Dr Ted Cockayne, who had written to 4,000 clubs individually in an attempt to raise money for the families appeal fund.

Along with other key members — including Dick Scruby, club captain Tilbrook and the previously-mentioned Cockayne — Cousins became part of a core foundation that helped keep those affected together using the platform of the club, keeping the ethos of a community spirit intact throughout the following years to now see the club thriving in the present day.

“It took everyone a very long time to recover from the tragedy within the club and the wider community,” he added. “Perhaps we became too introverted, but we had a real inner strength borne from the tragedy and perhaps the club is unique in that sense that it was and still very much is a community club.

“It is amazing to see the club now and where they have got to considering we lost an entire team of players.”

Reflecting back on the upcoming anniversary, Cousins will once again be making an emotional return to the 
monument site to the crash victims at Ermenonville Forest.

As well as being 
involved in the anniversary memorial cycle ride that will see 100 players, parents and supporters of the club cycle 352 miles from 
Ermenonville to Bury St Edmunds later in May, a trip to the site this weekend will hold more significant importance to Cousins as the fateful date continues to have a lasting personal tie to his family.

“We will be going back to the memorial site to spread the ashes of Chris Tilbrook who I was really close to, 
because it’s what he wanted,” he explained. “It is always very emotional going back to the area and there is even a name on the memorial of a Frenchman called Jean Couzins, which is always a bit of a shock and makes me reflect.

“My daughter Gemma was also born on March 3 so there is a lot of spiritual links for me to that date.

“It seems a long time but the feelings and shock are still there.

“In short you still really can’t believe it.

“Time always helps to heal, but we can’t ever forget those who were lost — that is important.”