How we cheated death on the M40
For an instant, the Range Rover was travelling on two wheels. Then, with a terrifying inevitability, it rolled over on to its side and skidded across three lanes of heavy traffic before coming to a stop on the hard shoulder of the motorway.
Inside the car, Susan George was stunned, battered and bruised. Her head was gushing blood. But when she heard her husband’s voice say: ‘It’s all right darling, we’re alive,’ she knew she was going to survive. It was, without a doubt, nothing short of a miracle that the couple escaped such a crash with their lives. Their Range Rover, on the other hand, was a complete write-off.
Sunday June 16 1996 had started out as a special day. Susan, 46, and her actor husband Simon MacCorkindale, 44, were heading to the Stella Artois tennis tournament in London for a celebrity lunch, hosted by their close friend, the advertising magnate Prank Lowe (Susan is godmother to his son, Sebastian). Travelling in the back of the car were four of Susan’s Irish setters, who were being dropped off to have their long coats trimmed.
Susan and Simon, who live in Northamptonshire, then planned to visit their good friend Lady ‘Kanga’ Tryon, who is recovering in hospital after falling from the window of a Surrey clinic in June.
Their best-laid plans were shattered at around 10am that sunny morning, as they coasted down the M40 near Bicester in Oxfordshire. Simon, driving in the middle lane at around 70mph, was distracted by something in the back of the car. In that split second, the Range Rover began to veer dangerously towards a car travelling in the inside lane. To avoid a collision, Simon turned the steering wheel hard to the right – too hard, as it turned out. As he tried to correct his mistake, the Range Rover toppled Range Rover on to its side, blew a tyre, and slid across three lanes of fast-moving traffic. It came to a stop, right way up, on a verge by the side of the hard shoulder. Amazingly, no other vehicles were involved.
Here, for the first time, Susan recounts the harrowing events of that nightmarish day. ‘After what seemed like an age, all the crashing and banging stopped, and the car came to a standstill. The windscreen was shattered, as was Simon’s right-hand window,’ she says. The first thing I saw when I looked out through the broken glass was three of the dogs on the motorway. One dog was still sitting in the back of the Range Rover.
‘Simon and I climbed out of the car and began running around dying to catch them. I was holding my head, which was streaming with blood, and he was clutching his right arm.’
‘I was very lucid,’ says Simon, ‘and not fearful at all – perhaps because I’ve done so many stunts for movies. The bigger the crisis, the calmer I get!’
A number of motorists quickly pulled over and came to the couple’s aid. ‘People were grabbing me, saying, “You can’t go running around; you must lie down. You’ve suffered a head injury,”‘ says Susan. ‘But I was concerned for the animals – where were they and were they hurt?
‘Everybody eventually persuaded me to lie down, and they laid me at the roadside with my head held straight, so I could not see what was happening on either side of me. One lady told me she was a nurse, and held something to my head to stem the flow of blood. I felt as if I was outside my body, looking in. I remember looking up at the blue, blue sky and calling for the dogs. Eventually, somebody said to me, “It’s all right – they’re all safe.”
‘Human kindness excelled on that day. If people hadn’t reacted so quickly, my dogs wouldn’t have been saved. I shall never be able to thank everybody enough.’
Susan and Simon, who have been married for 11 years, were taken to the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. Both had been wearing seat belts, which Susan is certain saved them from more serious injury. But there was still an agonising wait for the results of a barrage of X-rays.
‘I was doing rather well until all the nurses left and I was on my own. I went completely cold and began to shake furiously. I cried quite hysterically, and I could hear Simon in the next room saying, “It’s all right.” At that moment, I wanted to see his face to know that he was OK. He was up on his feet and came into my room. “We looked at each other, and there were huge smiles on our faces.’
With no steering wheel to brace herself against, Susan had taken a severe battering in the accident. She sustained a deep head wound that she thinks may have been caused by the rear-view mirror flying off and hitting her (she later found it in her handbag!). She also had a dislocated right shoulder, a torn ligament in her forefinger, a dislocated bone in her hand, a nasty cut on her knee and dozens of lacerations from flying splinters of glass. She is still receiving twice-weekly physiotherapy sessions from Kevin Lidlow, who has treated the Olympic athletes in Atlanta, and she also used yoga and homeopathy to speed her recovery. To begin with, she found driving difficult (‘It seemed as if everything in the road was coming at me’), but now feels confident behind the wheel.
Simon’s main injury was a severe friction burn on his upper right arm, caused by glass and gravel tearing into his skin when the Range Rover skidded across the road on the drivers side Initially, doctors thought the injury would require a skin graft, but Simon has since made a swift recovery.
It’s a miracle that he won’t need a skin graft but then he’s always been a very fast healer, says Susan He once stuck a garden fork through his Wellington boot while he was sorting out the muck heap and his foot then healed amazingly.
Physically Susan was more badly injured than Simon during the crash but she feels he has been psychologically affected ‘He wants to take responsibility for the accident because he wories he may have taken his eye off the ball for second, she says: Which every one of us has done in our lifetime.’
In July, the couple made then fust public appeal since since the crash – at the premiere of Sir Cameron Mackintosh’s musical, Martin Guerre.
We were still feeling quite frail, says Simon. ‘People kept coming up to put then arms around us.’
It was a bit like going back into society after being hospitalised for a long time, adds Susan. ‘I found it difficult to hold back the tears. Everyone was so caring.’
Susan and Simon would love a break, to give themselves time to relax but the plessures of work make it impossible. For the past 10 years, the couple have run a flourishing independent film company Amy International – named after Susans character in Sam Peckinpah’s controversial 1971 film Straw Dogs.
‘We have an awful lot of work on, and we really can’t take any time out at all’, says Susan. ‘We know the most important thing to do would be to slow down and allow the dust to settle but we just can’t afford to do it. We’ve got three films in pre-production at the moment, and we can’t allow any of the balls were juggling to drop. Some days were able to cope brilliantly, other days we just muddle through.’
One can’t help thinking that Susan will do rather better than ‘muddle through’. Despite her tiny frame and sex-symbol image, she has an unstoppable spirit and is determined to look to he future. She recently launched her own range of though-provoking greetings cards, The Susan George Collection. She’s branched out into singing and has written – and is now recording – an album of ‘New Age country music’ to be released next year. She’s lent her voice to a series of eco-fnendly audio stones and music for children, The Tidings Project, released this month. Work will soon begin on an animated film based on the stories, which will feature Susans vocal talents alongside those of other big name stars.
‘I have a great desire to give 100 percent to everything. I do. And I love a challenge’, says Susan. And when asked if she was motivated by money she says: ‘I’m not money-oriented, and I’ve turned down a lot of things that would have paid an awful lot of money. I’ve been offered a fortune to pose nude in magazines for example, but it’s something I’d never dream of doing.’
Significantly, Susan has decided to return to major league acting, after having focused on producing for five years. her appetite was whetted last year after appearing with Ben Cross in the psychological thriller The House That Mary Bought (an Amy International production, directed by Simon) and she’ s also considering offers from several top British and American producers and directors. She will soon announce the vehicle for her comeback.
As our exclusive photographs testify Susan and Simon have made a remarkable recovery from the accident. And far from feeling bitter or angry, she is extremely buoyant and full of plans for the future and she feels extremely lucky.
‘ I’m a great believer in Fate and in the positives of life’, says Susan. ‘We may have had some bad luck recently, but we’re still here, and for that I feel extraordinarily blessed. I feel that someone up there is looking out for us, and saying, “Your time is not now.”‘