Drunk at the wheel

A DRIVER whose coach smashed into a block of flats in Tarring was almost four times over the drink-drive limit.

Sean Shepherd would have been "severely intoxicated, almost incapacitated" when he tried to jump clear of the Crawley Luxury 53-seater Volvo before it slammed into the block in Terringes Avenue on May 13, a doctor told an inquest on Tuesday.

The 38-year-old was dragged underneath the vehicle and killed. He was supposed to be ferrying school children in Horsham to and from swimming lessons when he crashed.

Dr Jeremy Grant, a consultant pathologist at Worthing Hospital, told the hearing Mr Shepherd would have been "severely intoxicated, almost incapacitated" by drink. Tests revealed he had 396mg of alcohol in 100ml of urine. The legal limit is 107. He also said traces of anti-depressants were found in his system.

The inquest heard on Tuesday how a 14-year-old paperboy, delivering copies of the Worthing Advertiser to the flats, was saved after he left his trolley and sneaked off to have a "crafty cigarette".

Maureen Brain was also lucky to escape with her life. She had parked her car to visit friends in the block of flats next door when the coach careered towards her and only veered right, missing her, at the last minute.

In the hour and a half leading up to the crash, Mr Shepherd had collided with two lamp-posts and several parked cars before finally smashing through the flint wall and into the property, the inquest heard.

He had only started work for Crawley Luxury Coaches, based in Lancing, three weeks before.

His transport manager Howard Ticehurst, who gave him the job, said he contacted Mr Shepherd after he missed a pick-up in Horsham on May 13.

"It was not his fault he missed the job, it was mine because I did not tell him. I told him there was no danger of him losing his job because of it and told him to carry on to the next pick-up," he said.

But Mr Ticehurst's office then received calls from drivers who reported seeing a Crawley Luxury coach pulled up on the verge of the A24 with its hazard lights on and no driver. He didn't show up at his next job.

When Mr Shepherd was contacted again by phone, Mr Ticehurst said he sounded "totally incoherent".

"I could not get a lot of sense out of him," he told the hearing.

"I am sure I telephoned the Crawley office at that point and told them I thought Sean was drunk and we needed to get the police out there."

The next time the coach was spotted it was in Findon Valley and then Field Place in Durrington.

Mr Ticehurst told Mr Shepherd to stay in Durrington and he would go and collect him but he was not there when his boss arrived.

Mr Ticehurst said he followed the police helicopter to Terringes Avenue where he found the vehicle "embedded" in the front of the flats.

He formally identified Mr Shepherd's body to police.

PC Albert Mariner, a traffic accident investigator, said the coach driver's leg got caught between the vehicle and the flint wall and he was dragged underneath.

He said: "The effect of drink and drugs should be apparent to all. Especially coach drivers." He told the coroner the coach was travelling at more than 40mph. The speed limit for the road is 30mph.

Monica Townsend, Mr Shepherd's partner, told the coroner he had suffered from depression and had family problems but he had "picked up" in the weeks before his death, especially after being given the coach driver job.

"He liked to drink. Most people with depression often drink because they think alcohol will help them but it makes them even worse," she said.

"As far as I knew, when he was driving he wasn't drinking."

She told the hearing Mr Shepherd had talked about taking his own life "more than once" but not in the months leading up to his death.

West Sussex coroner Roger Stone recorded an open verdict.

He said: "The fear, even though unfounded, that he may have blown his job, could have caused him to flip.

"If that is the case then I believe he has stopped, drunk alcohol to excess and thought to himself 'I can't go on' and tried to kill himself. Whether he succeeded as he planned we will never know."