A hero grandmother told how she was forced to break down the door of a stranded Eurostar train yesterday fearing for the lives of her two grandchildren trapped inside, struggling to breathe.
Yvonne Lewis, 54, below, was among more than 2,000 British passengers stuck with hardly any food or water for up to 18 HOURS in searing 40C (104F) heat when five trains broke down in the Channel Tunnel – wreaking travel mayhem.
Terrified holidaymakers – many on their way back from Disneyland Paris – say they were treated like “caged animals” by Eurostar staff who even told some to stop breathing so heavily as “there is not enough oxygen for everyone”.
Many thought they had been hit by a bomb as the trains ground to a sudden halt and were plunged into darkness due to a technical fault, believed to have been caused by a giant blocks of ice falling off the bottom of the carriages.
Women passed out, children were vomiting, fights broke out, and people were forced to urinate in the aisles amid chaotic scenes, while nearly 1,500 passengers – including supermodel Claudia Schiffer – were told to evacuate their trains and find their own way in darkness to rescue locomotives.
Yvonne, from North London, told how she had no option but to stage her dramatic rescue when she saw grandsons Rhys, 10, and Ben, seven, who suffers from diabetes, were close to fainting.
They had boarded the Eurostar after a holiday at Disney as a treat to Ben who has endured years of cancer tests – but it quickly turned to horror.
The 5ft 2in gran – a qualified first-aider – said: “We’d been sat trapped in a train for four hours and no one told us what was going on. I couldn’t just sit there. My grandsons were close to fainting and some children had vomited.
“The driver locked himself in the engine room and we were knocking on the door asking what was going on – you could just hear him inside, crying. Passengers were getting very angry.
“We were desperate as we couldn’t breathe in there and it was like a sauna but all we were told on the intercom was to ‘inhale less and keep seated’.
“I asked two other passengers to help me break down the door to get out. We had to make a break for it for the sake of the children. It was a shambles.”
The boys’ mum Denise Hawyard, 33, said her sons were left traumatised by the ordeal.
She added: “We were in the tunnel, about 10 minutes from UK, when we heard this almighty bang. At first, we thought it was a bomb or something – it sounded like an explosion – or that the train had derailed.
“Then we were just left there. People got frustrated and they were even charging for water. We were forced to wait in the dark for two hours before being told to evacuate.
“But by this time the boys were really hungry. Ben is diabetic and it was like a sauna inside the carriage. We couldn’t breathe and I was trying to get someone to refrigerate the insulin for Ben.
“A French doctor finally came round to see him because he was looking so poorly we were getting desperate to get some food in him.
“But the doctor just said, ‘Leave his blood to run high. It’s all right’. But I was terrified he would pass out, which is why Mum had to smash down the door.
“The way Eurostar treated us was absolutely atrocious.” The nightmare began on Friday evening as five trains set out from Brussels and Paris in freezing temperatures and the worst snow storms France has seen for eight years.
It is thought the trains – all over halfway through the tunnel – suffered a fault as they entered the warmer air of the tunnel.
Two – carrying 1,364 passengers – were evacuated, with travellers making a harrowing walk to freedom down a narrow ledge. Many others were left to plan their own escape route by climbing out of carriages and walking through the pitch black tunnel over live electric cables.
And last night, as weary passengers arrived back in the UK – many more than a day late – they rounded on Eurostar.
Fashion student Kiri Chapman, 17, from Maidstone, Kent, who was trapped in a carriage for 10 hours, said: “Everyone thought they were going to die. People were passing out because of the lack of air.
“Then someone came round and told us to stop breathing heavily because there wasn’t enough oxygen for everyone. It was horrendous – like being trapped in a chamber of death.”
James Haselden , 40, from Gravesened, added: “I’ve never met such a rude, arrogant bunch of people as those French people running Eurostar. We were treated like animals.
“The Eurostar staff made out like they couldn’t speak English and wouldn’t do anything. We had one bottle of water between 10 of us. We had one Danish pastry between nine of us.
“We had two toilets between 1,800 people. They wouldn’t open the other toilet because there was no flushing water and it was seeping with excrement. We couldn’t breathe and kids passed out. I’ll never travel with Eurostar again.”
Lee Godfrey, who had boarded the Eurostar Paris at Disney at 7.37pm, said people were left stricken with fear as they got off the train.
He said: “The evacuation procedure we followed was one we set down ourselves because there was no one to help. When we disembarked from the train, we had no lights. That was very scary for the children and the older people.
“We went off one by one from the train into the adjoining tunnel, and joined a car transporter from Folkestone. It was filthy, children were asleep in the floor, they had been sick, there was just one loo. It was a complete nightmare.”
Weary travellers were still arriving back at Eurostar stations at King’s Cross, London, and the two stops and Folkestone and Ashford, both in Kent, late last night.
And the chaos carried on when some emergency Eurostars put on to shuttle passengers home were cancelled.
Two off-duty police officers who helped stricken passenger told how conditions were appalling.
Caroline Lowe, of Sussex Police, and her partner, Metropolitan policeman Anton Menzies, helped evacuate the train with help from another off-duty student policeman and an off-duty paramedic.
Among the people the officers went to the aid of was a seven-and-a-half-month pregnant woman.
Ms Lowe said: “We needed to keep people as calm as possible. We used the Tannoy to ask people to remain on the train for their safety, while we evacuated everyone carriage by carriage, reassuring them there were alternative exits and we’d take them to safety.”
All four have asked to meet Eurostar officials.
Richard Brown, chief executive of EuroStar, yesterday apologised and said passengers will get compensation. He added that an investigation was underway but suggested the breakdown was due to the extreme weather.
“Eurostar is very, very sorry so many were inconvenienced,” he said.
John Keefe, spokesman for Eurotunnel, the Channel Tunnel operator, said the drama was “absolutely extraordinary”.
A total of five trains were stuck in the Channel Tunnel leaving people stuck for up to 16 hours.
1. The 6.59pm from Brussels – delayed for 3hrs 49mins.
2. The 6.43pm from Paris – passengers had to be evacuated on to a freight train before returning to London St Pancras at 8am – 12 hours later than expected.
3 and 4. The 7.13pm and 8.13pm from Paris – both had to be hauled to Folkestone, Kent, where passengers were put on five coaches to London.
5. The 7.37pm from EuroDisney – passengers were evacuated on to a freight train to Folkestone. They were then put on a rescue train to get them back to London.
The 8.29pm from Brussels and the 9.13pm from Paris were both turned back to their original destinations. Passengers have been offered a full refund plus a free Eurostar voucher for another journey.