Rally driver tells of his brush with death

RALLY driver Justin Birchall has spoken about his brush with death in a South America smash and his joy at coming home to his wife and three daughters.

Asleep in the back of a Land-Rover support vehicle on a desert road in Peru, Justin was suddenly thrown all over the car as it rolled after a collision with a taxi. Then he watched helplessly as second taxi headed straight for them.

He said: “The taxi skidded and I heard his tyres blow, and I thought to myself ‘I’m not going to survive this’, but somehow it missed us at the last second.”

Justin (40), who suffered four broken ribs and internal bleeding in the accident, returned home to his family at Middop, near Gisburn, last Friday and this week he was back at work at the family business, Birchall Foodservice at Hapton, Burnley, where he is operations director. “I’m still on painkillers and aching quite a bit,” he said.

Justin was a driver along with injured servicemen and others in the Race2Recovery team, competing in four Land-Rover-based Wildcat rally cars in the 5,000-mile Dakar Rally through Peru, Argentina and Chile.

Justin’s car had been forced out with a smashed gearbox on Day Four and he was in a Land-Rover Discovery support car when the terrifying accident happened.

He said: “I was asleep so I don’t know how it happened. We were the last vehicle in a convoy on a straight desert road. Suddenly I was being tossed about the inside of the car. When it stopped rolling I was in a confined space but managed to turn myself round. I realised I’d got broken ribs and I had abdominal pain.”

The crash, which killed two local people, is being investigated, and Justin said: “My heart goes out to the families of the people who died. It’s tragic.”

After four days in hospital, Justin took a plane to Santiago in Chile to rejoin his team mates at the end of the rally.

He flew into Heathrow last Thursday to find a crowd of supporters carrying welcome home banners, and saw wife Louise among them.

“It was a lovely surprise,” Justin said.

“I wasn’t expecting her to be there, but she’d driven down on her own to pick me up.”

Daughters Courtney (19), Sigourney (17) and Alicia (eight) were overjoyed to have dad back. He said: “It was a bit emotional. When you see your family again all sorts of things flood into your head.”

Justin’s close call hasn’t put him off rallying. “It’s in the blood,” he said. “You know you’re going to put yourself and your vehicle in harm’s way, but I’ve got some unfinished business. I need to get out there again next time and finish the Dakar Rally.”

Justin is continuing his fund-raising for the Race2 Recovery team’s charity Help for Heroes and its rehabilitation centre at Tedworth, Wiltshire. Donations can be made at www.justgiving.com/justin-birchall.