Personal recollections

<< Returning to Ljubljana: 50 years on.

Memories of memories.

I have, or think I have, quite vivid and accurate memories of the events following the accident, although some of what follows was recounted to me by others.

My father, two sisters – Sheila just 21 and my twin Janette – and three family friends – Fred and Wynne Woolley and their daughter Dianne – all died. My mother survived, virtually unharmed; I was unconscious but alive. I only remained so because of the courage of my mother who risked her own life to pull me out of the burning wreckage. I don’t know how she managed it, but she dragged me away from the immediate vicinity of the crash to where we were picked up by an ambulance that was leaving for the hospital in Ljubljana with other survivors.

I still have a scar on my left wrist where, I am told, a drip was hurriedly inserted in the ambulance.

I was very badly injured: a fractured skull, a broken leg, broken ribs, a pierced lung, a broken collar bone and some minor burns (I think that was all). As I regained consciousness, in a state of confusion I had tried to get out of my hospital bed, causing further damage to my broken leg. Instead of setting properly, the two parts of my tibia overlapped each other. My left leg is still, to this day, about one-and-a-half cms shorter than my right. In the haste involved in treating my fractured skull, my collar bone never set properly.

My mother and I were separated when we arrived at the hospital. I was in a coma for 7 days and for most of that time my mother thought that I must have died. However, there was an unknown survivor known as “patient X” in the British media. After five days Mirko Derganc, the surgeon in charge, having confirmed that I was not the person they had initially thought I was, took the coat that patient X had been covered with in the ambulance to show to a group of survivors. My mother recognised it as hers. After being informed of my condition, I was still in a coma, she was taken to see me. I regained consciousness two days later. Although this was wonderful for my mother, it must have been devastating for the other family who had hoped that their son had survived.

Personal recollections (contd.) >>

15 thoughts on “Personal recollections

  1. Hi!
    I am named after my mother’s cousin who died in the plane crash. I was born the year after, so I never met her. Her name was Sheila, just as your sister, and her family also came from Scotland. I found her gravestone here: .
    Must be hard for you to have lost so many family members in the accident. Thank you for sharing your story.
    Kind regards from Sheila Vaage Benestad

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dear Sheila,

      Thank you for taking the time to comment on the blog. It is very kind of you. It has taken me a long time (50+ years) to put my thoughts to “paper” and it is reassuring that people are reading it. I didn’t know what the reaction would be but it all comments I have received so far have been very positive. Some people have said that going back to Ljubljana last year and writing this blog will help bring closure to what happened but that can never be. It has, however, helped me to deal with what are still ongoing feelings.

      I know it must have affected your mother very much as I now know how it affected my relatives.

      Many, many thanks for your comments.

      Michael Gatford


      1. Hello Michael. My name is Barbara nee Young and I attended Mid Herts College doing a secretarial course with Janette – we got on really well as did the other girls . Janette was a lovely kind young lady and of course all of our group were shocked to hear the news about Janette Sheila and your father. I have only just come across your blog and often think of Janette. Thank you for doing your blog and I hope life is treating you well.


      2. Hello Barbara,

        It’s lovely for you to respond to the blog. I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to reply to you but we are in the process of renovating a “new” house (1930s era) and are a but busy. What are two people in the 70s doing renovating a house you might ask!

        I will respond to you more fully soon.

        Very best wishes,



  2. Dear Mike. We have corresponded before. I realise you live in Welwyn Garden City area. My aunt moved to WGC when she married and had 4 children. My cousin Patricia is married to Alan Bardett who was the Mayor of Welwyn at least once and a Councillor for many years. Her other children are Ian Marshall (passed away 2015) Alan Marshall (lives in Australia) and Christopher Marshall (70 like us and lives in Canada). As you spent holidays in Norfolk and I lived in King’s Lynn and Heacham it is, indeed, a small world. Linda Fowler.


  3. I don’t know weather you will know the folk involved, but I with some friends visited a house in Digswell round about 1966/67 . We were at a party where the hosts were a brother and sister who had lost their parents in the air crash. I guess they would have been aged between 17 and 20 ish. Would there be a wgc connection I wonder??


    1. Hello Rick,
      I lived in WGC but I and my mother were the only survivors from our family and I don’t know of any other families from the area who were also in the crash. I imagine that the party you attended was in 1967 and I remember attending at least one party in Digswell in that summer. I was 19 at the time. Did you live in WGC? If so where did you go to school?


      1. Hi Michael. Yes I lived in WGC. Lived at number 9 Valley Green. Was away at boarding school but had left by 1966 and was working in St Albans in the late 60’s. perhaps we met at this party. I recall it was a nice typical “ modern” house with large glass front windows and quite open plan inside. A long time ago of course and memories do get confused. So sorry to learn of your horrific experience. It made a big impression on everyone at the time. I think itwas greater on me as I flew into Dubrovnik in 1968 and was very fresh in people’s minds at that time.


      2. Hello Rick,

        I don’t remember the house. I do remember going to a party in Mardley Hill about June/July 1966. The only other one I remember was after the crash, sometime in 1967, somewhere on Harmer Green Lane, I think. As you say, it was a long time ago and what I am recounting are memories of memories of memories, …… I was at St Albans School up to December 1966. If you worked in St Albans perhaps we had some common acquaintances.


      3. Hi Michael. Sorry for late response. You say St Albans school. That wasn’t the Grammar school was it. My Dad taught there in the 60’s and 70’s. Was apprenticed to an IPC magazine printers in Spencer street. Long since demolished and is now a Lidl or a Netto.
        Happy days for me growing up in WGC, I think it was and probably still is a special place. I recently saw a house for sale near the woods, no 1 The Reddings up for sale. I was in and out of there as my best friend lived there David Solly. The current owners have completely renovated it and it’s on the market for £1.4 m.
        Eye-watering stuff!! We lived in Valley Green. Many happy memories of the area.



      4. Hello Rick,

        I went to St. Albans Abbey School from ’59 to ’66. The accident happened at the end of the year in which I took my A-Levels so, on returning to WGC in October, I returned to school for the rest of the Christmas term. Those were the days! I was supposed to be sitting the Cambridge entrance exams in December and, when I told my maths teacher that I couldn’t see any point in me sitting them – I’d missed over a month’s work and had done no studying at all – he replied “pull yourself together Gatford”!

        We had lived in Wellcroft Road but the Council re-housed us in a smaller house in Bury Croft when we returned to WGC. I think that the few months after returning, before my mother bought a house in Digswell Park Road in April 1967, were the the strangest, most disorienting ones I have ever endured. I did get out and meet friends and my mother bought me a car – an Austin Mini – in January ’67. I was driving her car up until then, even though my leg was still in plaster. It was my left leg so it was only needed to depress the clutch pedal!

        I went to University College London in 1967 to study Chemical Engineering although, with the benefit of hindsight, I should have delayed taking up my place. My mother was wonderful: she insisted that I go even though she would have preferred me to be at home for longer. Goodness knows how but I eventually got a degree which I never used. I went into market research in 1970, left after a year and went back to college (Goldsmiths College) to train to be a maths teacher. My mother lived in WGC until we (my mother, my wife and I) bought a house together in London. All of my real friends in WGC moved away in the early 70s so, with the exception of visiting my mother, I never went back.

        I will probably reply some more as the memories come (flooding?) back.

        Kind regards,


      5. Hi Michael,

        Now you have mentioned Digswell Park Road, and I’ve looked it up, I am now convinced this was the house I came to for that party. If you turned into the road off Knightsfield, would the house have been on the right ?Who I knew then or how I was there remains a mystery. I had a friend John Glover who was at that time engaged to Elsbeth Dudley-Morgan, and wonder it was through her. Will keep digging in the brain cells.
        Good to hear from you.
        I will try and send a list of people I knew there in due course from those days and maybe we’ll find a common denominator.
        Take care
        Kind Regards



  4. Dearest Michael My best friend Kathy Priddy died in this crash and it affected me badly . I was under the Doctor for shock. I wouldn’t allow a fire in the house ! Even today I still think of her . Her mother and father died her brother survived . I am 63 now but never forget that day . C


    1. Dear Annie,

      Thank you for taking the time to respond: I am sorry it has taken me so long to reply. As I think I have said in the blog, one of the things I have got out of this process is the understanding of how badly it affected others, not just those who survived. My aunts lost their brother; my cousins their cousins. My mother and I were fortunate that so many relatives and friends were so supportive and did not dwell on their own losses to us. Your friends brother must have had an awful time afterwards. At least my mother also survived.

      I hope that reading what I and some other people – cousins and friends – have written has not been too upsetting for you. I know that for me there barely goes a day when I don’t think about what happened in some way. We were a very close family so what I think about is not all sad. I do remember the good times we had together.

      Very best wishes,



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