Pam Warren looks like any other smartly dressed commuter on the railway platform. Only tiny clues give her away; barely noticeable rituals that keep the panic and flashbacks away.
‘I always turn my back when the train pulls into the station and take some deep breaths,’ she says. ‘I put my headphones in and play loud music in one ear to drown out the sound of the wheels, while the other listens out for announcements.
‘Any music with a strong beat will do, but Meghan Trainor’s I Love Me is good for when you’re not feeling too confident.’
Pam Warren,52, on board the Reading to London Paddington train 20 years after Ladbroke Grove rail crash on October 5 1999
No one sharing her carriage would connect this petite, glamorous 52-year-old with the ‘Lady in the Mask’, whose badly burned face became a symbol of courage after the Paddington rail crash 20 years ago.
In fact, Pam is the very last person you’d expect to find regularly making the same journey she took from her Berkshire home in 1999, which so tragically ended with 31 people dead and hundreds more injured. It was one of Britain’s worst rail disasters and Pam’s face — encased in a transparent Perspex mask to protect skin grafts — became the most enduring image of the tragedy.
She suffered full depth and third-degree burns after a fireball swept through her carriage and needed more than 22 major operations on her face and hands. The mask saved her from major disfigurement.
Then there were the invisible scars which have never fully healed. So terrifying are the flashbacks, triggered by the screech of wheels on steel tracks, it took Pam ten years to find the strength to board a train again — for a TV documentary with Sir Trevor McDonald.
When she first saw her burned face in the mirror — several weeks after the crash — she recoiled in horror, sobbing hysterically in her hospital room, convinced ‘my life was over’. To reduce scarring, she wore a moulded surgical mask (pictured) for 23 hours a day for 18 months to help the grafts taken from the inside of her arm heal and keep the skin moist
Now, astonishingly, she travels at least weekly past the exact spot at Ladbroke Grove where her previous existence as a successful young financial adviser came to a horrifying end.
Why would she put herself through such an ordeal? ‘I refuse to let the past define me,’ says Pam, who now works as a motivational speaker, specialising in resilience — something she possesses by the bucketload. ‘I don’t think travelling by train will ever be an enjoyable experience for me, I still feel nausea every time I take one. But I simply refuse to be beaten.
‘I take the train because it’s a nightmare driving into London.
The Ladbroke Grove rail crash, also known as the Paddington rail crash, took place on October 5 1999. Thirty-one people were killed and 227 were injured when a Thames Train service to Bedwyn railway station in Wiltshire crashed into a First Great Western high-speed train at Ladbroke Grove, two miles from Paddington station, London
‘The fear is always lurking in the background, but you just have to get on with it. I avoid sitting at the front as I did on that day or with my back to the direction of travel.’
Today, in her only interview to mark the 20th anniversary of the disaster, Pam remarkably goes so far as to say: ‘Paddington is the best thing that ever happened to me.’
She explains: ‘Paddington threw me challenges I wouldn’t wish on anyone, but it made me appreciate life, almost like seeing things in technicolour for the first time. It turned me into a rounder, warmer person.
‘Before the crash, I was on my way to becoming an older version of a person even I didn’t like. I was someone who measured their success by what they owned, who was always striving to be a company fat cat. Money-grabbing. Paddington completely knocked me out of that sphere. I like the person I became.’
Pam became known as the ‘Lady In The Mask’ as she had to wear the surgical mask for 18 months and 23 hours a day
Pam was, by her own rather harsh self-assessment, a shallow, materialistic career woman with ‘big hair and massive shoulder-pads’ when she boarded the 7.44am First Great Western express from Reading to attend a training course.
Pam on board the Reading to Paddington train. She remarkably goes so far as to say: ‘Paddington is the best thing that ever happened to me.’
Married for two years to second husband and business partner, Peter Warren — with whom she’d built up a financial services company with a turnover of £1.5million — she was the kind of woman who, with bulging Filofax, drove around in luxury cars and frequented champagne bars.
At 8.11am, her ‘yuppie’ existence was wiped out when a Thames Turbo train bound for Great Bedwyn in Wiltshire collided head-on with the incoming express at Ladbroke Grove on its final stretch to Paddington.
The newly-qualified Thames driver, for reasons we will never know for he was one of those to perish in the crash, ignored warning horns blaring in his cab after running through two yellow signals, then a red, before impact.
‘Burned to a crisp’ when the fireball struck her first-class carriage, Pam’s last memory — after scrambling from the mangled wreckage — is staring with shock at her ‘barbecued fingers’ as she sat on the embankment watching ‘smoke rising off my whole body’.
Her thick black coat had melted into what resembled a lace dress and the luxurious ‘big’ hair, of which she’d been so very proud, scorched to virtually nothing.
Pam at a press conference in London, 2000, as she is comforted by a fellow survivor Evelyn Crosskey
Pam spent three weeks in a coma at London’s Charing Cross hospital, and came round with her bandaged hands suspended above her head, not knowing where she was or what had happened.
When she first saw her burned face in the mirror — several weeks after the crash — she recoiled in horror, sobbing hysterically in her hospital room, convinced ‘my life was over’.
Pam and her husband Peter, now divorced, before the rail crash. Pam revealed in her autobiography that she found her husband unsupportive after the crash, with a ‘snap out of it’ approach to her suffering
To reduce scarring, she wore a moulded surgical mask for 23 hours a day for 18 months to help the grafts taken from the inside of her arm heal and keep the skin moist.
It was from behind this protective barrier that she gazed out at her radically altered new world and bravely, if reluctantly, became the public face of the Paddington Survivors Group and a tireless campaigner for rail safety.
Today, Pam’s recovery seems nothing short of miraculous. She doesn’t look a day older than when we last met a decade ago.
With the help of camouflage make-up, the facial scars appear almost non-existent. Only her hands — slim-fingered and delicate before the crash, now stubby and scarred — betray the full scale of her injuries.
‘That is the wonder of grafts,’ she says. ‘I was told when I had them that they do not wrinkle, however I was only grafted from my top lip upwards so the lower part of my face will age, which will be interesting.
‘I haven’t had any work on my face for years, but I had an operation on my hands last year because I damaged my grafts where the skin is so delicate. I was doing DIY and forgot to put my gloves on.’
Pam travels to Paddington Station in 2009 for the first time since the crash, which marked ten years after the tragic accident
Today, no trace remains of the traumatised woman who — drinking heavily to blot out those terrifying flashbacks — broke down in tears at a 2003 press conference, and wept: ‘I wish I’d died in the crash.’
The disaster very nearly destroyed her. Her marriage collapsed, she lost her career and was left with injuries so life-changing she felt suicidal. The legal battle for compensation dragged on for four years.
Her divorce from Peter in 2004 was so acrimonious they have not spoken since. Pam revealed in her autobiography that she found her husband unsupportive after the crash, with a ‘snap out of it’ approach to her suffering, while she admits her trauma, mixed with alcohol, could at times turn her into a nightmare to live with.
With the help of badly burned Falklands veteran Simon Weston, Pam managed to pull herself back from the brink — and the bottle — to reinvent herself. Recovering the determination and energy which had brought her success in her former career, she found a new outlet through helping others.
‘If Paddington had never happened and my life had carried on the way it was, I think I’d have ended up desperately lonely and unfulfilled,’ she says. ‘Would I have been able to look back on my life and ask, “Was it all worth it?” and say yes? I don’t think so. Now I like to think I could.’
An ambassador for charities the Scar Free Foundation, the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust and the burns centre for children at Bristol Royal Hospital, Pam now uses her story to inspire others. She was one of many who supported acid attack survivor and TV celebrity Katie Piper, 35, who also had to wear a plastic mask as she came to terms with her devastating injuries.
‘I used to say I didn’t want to be known as the Lady in the Mask, or the train crash survivor, but it’s something I can’t get rid of, so I reasoned I could pass on the knowledge I have gained in a positive, forward-thinking way,’ says Pam, who holds workshops and one-to-one training.
‘When it comes to coping with change and disruption, I am almost like Teflon and the tools I have developed can be used by everyone in everyday life. People listen because I’ve walked the walk.’
Pam rarely talks these days about her memories of the crash itself.
‘If I’d kept on doing that I’d have ended up banging my head against the wall in frustration,’ she says.
‘It’s not that it upsets me any more, and in a way it was good therapy, but I don’t want to be living in the past. I have a short introductory video, which tells the audience in two minutes who I was and what happened, then I talk about the unique skills I have learned since then. It’s all about falling in love with change, seeking it out and embracing it.
‘Once you alter your frame of mind, you become much quicker at spotting the opportunities. I have great empathy for others struggling to cope, but if you can change the way you think it’s the difference between a drab, miserable day and a brilliant, sunny one.’
The mask which made Pam famous was for years packed away in bubble wrap in the loft of her Berkshire cottage. Now it is a part of her speaker’s kit.
‘When people say how good I look now, well I owe that to the mask,’ says Pam, who actually has three of them. New ones were made to fit the changing shape of her face as she healed.
‘Quite simply, it saved my face. Having lived with that burnt face prior to the mask, I had honestly convinced myself I would be horribly scarred for the rest of my life.
‘So the fact that I’m not and can cover what scarring is left with make-up, I owe to the mask and I would hope that it is offered to every single other person who has scarring or injury to their face.’
There are still days when Pam falls into what she describes as a ‘fug’, usually when overwork has resulted in exhaustion.
Although she received a compensation settlement for her injuries — the terms of which she is prevented from disclosing — she still needs to work, as much for the income as personal fulfilment.
Even so, her resilience was tested to the limit when last year she found herself trapped on an overcrowded train to Waterloo. ‘As we set off, I could feel the panic rising in my throat. I began to sweat, my mouth went dry and the nausea rose from the pit of my stomach,’ she writes on her website.
‘I bit my tongue in an effort to ward off crying out. I could feel it welling up in me as the flashbacks began, coming ever thicker and faster. I was literally stuck in a corner with no visible way out, feeling absolutely terrible and in pain.’
She says now: ‘It freaked me out. When I turned up at the venue I had to excuse myself, go the ladies and pull myself together, but even then I felt discombobulated for the rest of the day. It was an unpleasant experience, but I wouldn’t let it stop me. There was no question of getting off the train. I had to finish that journey.’
Pam still campaigns for rail safety. She has never blamed the driver of the Thames train, but rather the failings in the rail operating safety systems that allowed it to happen.
Recently, she held high-level meetings with train operators after it was pointed out to her that evacuation signs were disappearing from trains. ‘It has taken me two-and-a-half years of constant nagging and emails to get them to put anything back up. Some responded pretty quickly, but not others,’ she says. ‘It feels good
that the industry still listens to me, but I worry about complacency creeping in. Why does it take little old me to keep being an irritant until they do something?’
Pam has every reason to keep fighting for rail safety, for her commute is about to get much longer. She is selling her home in Berkshire and moving to North Wales. ‘I was visiting some friends there at Easter and it was glorious,’ says Pam, who hopes to buy a small-holding where she can keep goats, chickens and a donkey.
‘I went on a walk and sat down on a bench with mountains behind me and the sea in front and I thought, “What am I doing in the South-East?” The decision hit me like a thunderbolt, but I immediately felt I was at home there and so comfortable.’
Pam has already traded in her 14-year-old Lexus sports coupe for a Jaguar E-Pace to cope with the Welsh terrain and can’t wait to start on her new adventure.
Single since her divorce, Pam says she couldn’t be more content. ‘It would take a special man to cope with me, because I’m off in a million different directions all at once,’ she says.
‘It would be nice to have someone in my life, but if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. I don’t know where my move to Wales might lead to, but it will be really exciting finding out.’