'Measles saved our life'
Marie Townsend and Stella Kyarsgaard should have been at the school one day in August 1944 when an American Air Force bomber crashed into their classroom killing their reception classmates. But the sisters were kept home that day due to being ill with measles. AASMA DAY talks to the Lancashire twins about their miraculous escape.
“BECOMING ill with measles saved our lives. We have been very lucky and someone was definitely looking out for us that day.
“We just thank our lucky stars every day and say a prayer for those who died.”
Identical twins Marie Townsend and Stella Kyarsgaard, whose surname was Quigley before their marriages, are now 78. They were five-years-old at the time of the Freckleton air disaster living in Kirkham and looking forward to starting school at Freckleton Holy Trinity School.
But a dose of measles meant the pair had to stay at home - which proved to be a lifesaver as only three children survived the inferno that engulfed the classroom they would have been in that day.
Marie, who lives in Penwortham, near Preston, says: “Getting ill saved our lives. We became ill with measles and then we got chicken pox.
“We must be among the luckiest people alive.
“We were only five at the time so can’t remember much, but our mum told us the details of what had happened later on.
“I can still remember how sad it was and how terrible we felt for those who died.”
Sister Stella adds: “By rights, we should have been there that day and the only reason we survived was because we had measles and as a result were safely at home.
“We appreciate how lucky we were and have been throughout our lives and our thoughts are always with those who died in the tragedy.”
The Freckleton air disaster happened on August 23 1944 when an American pilot lost control of his bomber plane and crashed into the heart of the village and school killing 61 people including 38 children.
The tragedy occurred after two American United States Army Air Force b-24 Liberator heavy bomber aircraft took off from Warton on a test flight but ran into trouble when a violent storm swept in from the Irish Sea with heavy rain causing flash flooding.
One of the planes managed to head north, but the other flew on into the storm.
Flying very low, the aircraft’s right wing tip hit a treetop and then was ripped away.
As part of the aircraft hit the infants wing of the Freckleton Holy Trinity School, fuel from the ruptured tanks ignited and produced a sea of flames.
The crash destroyed the school’s reception classroom and the Sad Sack Snack Bar.
In the classroom, 38 schoolchildren and six adults were killed. Miraculously, the children in the rest of the school were unharmed.
Solemnly, Marie, who is married to Derek and has just celebrated her Ruby wedding anniversary, says: “You never forget something like that and it stays with you for the rest of your life.
“We are just grateful that we are lucky enough to have survived to tell the tale.”
The air disaster wasn’t the only tragedy the twin sisters managed to avert during their life as they have had a few scrapes while growing up with their parents Tom and Alice Quigley.
Marie explains: “My mum was a seamstress and a baker and my dad was an accountant but he served in the war in the artillery.
“When we were very young, my mum was going on the train to London to meet my dad after the war.
“My mum was a bit of a psychic and she told us how she did not feel easy in the train carriage we were sitting in.
“She felt so uneasy, she decided we should all move to a different carriage. About 20 minutes later, the carriage we had been sitting in was blown up by a German bomb.
“As I say, we have been extremely lucky in life.”
Marie, who has a son and a daughter and two grandchildren, says she in particular has had her fair share of scrapes over the years and describes herself as being: “Like a cat with nine lives”.
She recounts the tale of how she suffered horrendous injuries at the age of about 10 when she fell through a skylight in Aqueduct Street, Preston.
Marie recalls: “I was doing a favour for a little boy whose ball had ended up on top of the skylight and I offered to climb up and get it for him.
“I had pumps on and I got to the top and fell through the skylight and injured my arms so badly, they were almost hanging off me.”
Stella explains that she shares a close bond with her sister and how they can feel each other’s pain and know when one of them is in trouble.
She says: “I can remember when Marie fell through the skylight and it was only through my mum hailing down a passing ice-cream van who took her to hospital that her arms were saved.
“It is weird as we have a real connection as twins and experience moments of mental telepathy.
“My mum told us that whenever Marie had a blood transfusion, I was the one who fainted, even if I wasn’t anywhere near her at the time.
“Whenever I felt a bit funny and had a turn, my mum would say: ‘It’s okay, your sister’s just having a blood transfusion.”
Marie adds: “I ended up having to have about 10 operations on my arms and hundreds of stitches on each arm.
“My nails have never grown since and people think that I must bite my nails because they are so short and never grow.
“I am definitely the more accident-prone twin and Stella was the one who always passed out when something happened to me or every time I had a blood transfusion.”
Marie and Stella share a close bond but have their own personalities and identities and have their own lives.
Stella actually lives in America but is currently staying in Penwortham with her sister and brother-in-law until next May.
Marie says: “My mum always said: ‘Don’t live in each other’s pockets as it is not good for you.’
“I am a bit noisier than Stella. She is quieter, but has her noisy moments as well when she wants to. I have always been an extrovert.
“We have lots of similarities as well as looking identical but we have our differences and own personalities too.
“When we were younger, people couldn’t tell us apart and we played plenty of pranks on people.
“When we did not want to see a fellow anymore, we used to get the other one to get shot of them for us!
“You can tell us apart as at the moment I have pink, purple and green hair!”
Marie used to be a professional singer with the stage name “Anne Marie” and performed in France, Holland, Belgium and Algiers and sister Stella used to come and visit her and watch her perform.
It was in France that the sisters met their American husbands who were serving in France for the US Army.
They have both since divorced from them and Marie later married Derek.
Marie and Stella have never missed a Preston Guild and have celebrated four Preston Guilds together with their first one being in 1952 at the age of 14.
Stella, who has a daughter and two grandchildren, says: “I have been living in America for 50 years.
“I have been over here for a holiday and have been living with my sister. I don’t fly so sailed here and I will be going back home in May.
“Even though Marie and I are close, we have our own lives to live and we talk to each other on the telephone regularly when I am in America.”
One way in which the twin sisters are very different is that Stella is a real bingo queen.
Laughing, Stella says: “I love bingo and I go every day and I even win some money on the odd occasion. We are very different in that respect as Marie hates bingo!
“My mum was a real bingo queen too so I must have inherited it from her.”
Marie says the close calls they have experienced in life has made them even more determined to live their lives to the full and enjoy every moment.
Marie is still working at the age of 78 as a cleaner at Penwortham Youth Centre.
She says: “I have been doing it for 30 years and people often ask me ‘when are you going to retire?’
“My reply is: ‘When Nelson gets his eye back!’
“Stella has been living with us but she will be going back to America as she has her own life to live .
“We get along well but we certainly have our squabbles too.
“But we know however far away we are from each other, we share a close bond and that we are both lucky to be alive after avoiding disaster.”
Stella says: “We have been very lucky and thank our lucky stars and say a prayer for those who died in the Freckleton air disaster which we thankfully escaped.”