16 September 2011, 06:00
Just weeks after becoming a world record-breaker when he was named as one of the four oldest siblings in the world, Jack Stepham was killed when a runaway car slammed into the bench he was sitting on.
Jack, who was 94, a veteran of Dunkirk and who had been held in a POW camp by the Germans for 3 years, was sitting with his 84 year old wife June enjoying the spring sunshine.
An inquest heard that the car had been parked on a hill and rolled backwards, travelling 35 metres before slamming into the pensioner and trapping him underneath.
Paramedics and emergency services raced to the scene but, despite a desperate battle to save the old soldier, he died,
The inquest in Hatfield, Herts., was told that although the handbrake was in perfect working order, it had not been applied fully that day.
A Police Collision Investigator said that because of that, it was only a matter of time before the car would have begun to roll backwards.
Recording a verdict of accidental death, Coroner Edward Thomas told the hearing that it was important that when leaving a car on a hill it was important for motorists to always park in gear.
The court heard that Mr Stepham, a retired banker, and his wife had moved into Turneys Orchard, a retirement development set around a cul-de-sac in Chorleywood, Herts., some 18 months before the tragedy. They occupied one of the 30 flats and, on March 14 this year, decided to go for a stroll in the spring sunshine. They couldn't walk far and so decided to sit on one of the numerous benches around the development enjoying the sunshine.
That morning, cleaner Jackie Spence, had driven down the hill into the cul-de-sac and parked her Volkswagen Eos outside one of the flats. Taking her cleaning equipment from her boot, she went inside leaving the vehicle facing up the hill.
She told the inquest she had applied the handbrake before going inside. Some half an hour later, she was alerted that her car had rolled backwards and ran outside to see the vehicle at the bottom of the cul-de-sac.
The inquest heard that it had travelled some 35 metres down the hill and, at a speed of around 10mph, had slammed into the bench ending up on a flower bed and a garage wall.
Mr Stepham was under the vehicle and on top of the wreckage of the bench he had been sitting on. His wife June had managed to throw herself clear moments before the impact. Manager of the development Adrian Dorrian told the court when he ran over to the vehicle he could see the handbrake was "up" and described the position as 11 o'clock.
He said there was no hard, fast rule about parking but he said residents and visitors were encouraged to use parking spaces and not leave cars on the road.
Pc Simon Nash, who arrived shortly after the accident, confirmed that the car was in neutral and the handbrake was engaged: "quite firmly."
Pc Alan Kemp, from Herts Police Collision Investigation Unit, said he later did tests with the vehicle and took it back to Turney's Orchard, parking it on the hill where it had been left that day. He said applying the handbrake in an number of positions he was able to do a series of tests. "When I pulled up the lever, for the first three notches it would roll. On the fourth notch it would hold, but was not stable and would roll down the hill in time."
He said gravity gradually overcame the inertia of the vehicle and it would have begun to roll despite the fact that when the driver had got out it would have been stationary.
"It rolled because of the degree to which the handbrake had been applied," said Pc Kemp.
Questioned by a member of Mr Stepham's family the officer the handbrake had been applied to just a third of its "possible engagement."
Recording a verdict of accidental death, Coroner Mr Thomas said in addition to parking in gear when ever on a hill, motorists should also think about turning the wheels so that if a vehicle did begin to roll it would follow a curved path. Outside the court Mr Stepham's sons Clive and Mark said they hoped people would now be more aware about the necessity to park cars on hills with the vehicle in gear and where possible with wheels turned.
Clive, 63, said: "Dad was a wondeful man. He was the best man we ever knew."
Mark, 52, added: "He was on the outskirts of Dunkirk when the evacuation was on and when he came back he got disciplined for having a dirty rifle. He soon went back to fight and was captured in Crete by the Germans and was a POW for the rest of the war. While a prisoner he had a tooth pulled out with pliers. He and a couple of other guys escaped by tunnelling but were caught three days later in woods."
It was last year that Jack and his three sisters Anne, 95, Belle, 98, and Clara, then 99, entered the Guiness Book of Records as the oldest four siblings in the world. They were reunited for the occasion and photographed in Jack's local paper.
Jack and his wife June had been married for 63 years. After the war he had worked in the City of London as a broker.
They had two sons and he left behind six grandchildren and one great grandson. The day after he died he had been due to meet his great grandchild for the first time. Son Mark said that on the day he died the Guiness Book of Records were in touch with him about the family achievement and he had to explain his father had died.