x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Our driving culture to blame for tragedy, says brother

Devastating tragedy could have been avoided with 'better enforcement, harsher fines and more education about safety on the roads'.

Rashed Rastegar lost three brothers and an uncle in a car accident last year in Abu Dhabi.
Rashed Rastegar lost three brothers and an uncle in a car accident last year in Abu Dhabi.

ABU DHABI // For most of the time, Rashed Rastergar keeps his emotions in check. He prefers to concentrate on the good times, before that terrible day when a single car crash took the lives of three of his younger brothers.

"The pain will fade a bit but they will never be forgotten," he says. "It is not something you ever get over, but you have to accept it. They are gone. We are now trying to look after out mother, she is still here." It is more than a year since the accident, which also left his uncle dead. It happened when the Toyota Yaris they were travelling in on their way to school in Abu Dhabi veered off the road at high speed. It slammed into a palm tree, before spinning into a concrete wall.

To add further pain to the family, the boy's father was one of the first to come across the accident, not realising straight away whose car it was and that two of his children were dead inside the car and another seriously injured. He had to then drive home and break the news to the others. Najib, 13, and Majid, 11, were killed instantly. Their older brother Khaled, 16, died later in hospital. Their uncle Parviz Salimi, a front seat passenger, was also killed instantly. Remarkably, the driver, Rashed's brother-in-law, walked away from the crash with just a broken arm.

In the months since, Rashed, 25, a recent graduate, has tried to console his shattered parents while dealing with his own grief. For much of the time, he appears calm and composed as he recalls what happened. But there are other occasions when the pain cannot be disguised. He wells up slightly when he talks about the funeral, his mother's state at present and her visits to the graves. Then there are his own thoughts and memories. On the outside, Rashid looks like any other young man of his age and background; casually dressed in a T-shirt and trousers. He retains an air of dignity, but it is clear that being able to talk to an outsider about his siblings is something of a relief.

Inside the family, such conversations are still too hard, the accident never mentioned, and he finds the chance to express his feelings almost cathartic. "They were lovely brothers, all very different but lovely," he says. "Khaled was very religious and seen as an unofficial imam in school. We always used to joke around about football. "Najib was naughty but very smart, he always used to say he wanted to be a hunter when he grew up.

"The quieter one was Majid. They were all normal, nice, popular young boys. It is very upsetting." Rashed is the second oldest of 10 children and was born in the UAE. His family, originally from Iran, have lived here for more than 25 years. Around six years ago, high rents forced them to move further away from the city centre. At the time of the accident last March, they were living in a villa in Al Shamka, 10 minutes away from Abu Dhabi International Airport.

The four youngest children, Khaled, Noura, 15, Najib and Majid, were all pupils at the Iranian School in Abu Dhabi and made the 40-minute drive each way every day. Their father Mohammed, 55, usually took the three boys to school every morning. Noura, their sister, was driven in by Rashid at midday, as their other siblings, Ramin, Farzana, Adel, Sumaya and Fahima, were all either working or studying at university.

But on this particular day Rashid got a phone call from his brother-in-law offering to do the midday trip himself. "He insisted twice," he recalls. "The first time I said it was OK, I would do the journey, but the second time I agreed. He picked the boys up and dropped Noura off, then went to see my father at his work. They picked up my uncle and set off home." What Rashed did not know when he accepted the offer of the lift was that his brother-in-law had not slept the night before and had already done a lot of driving in the morning.

When they failed to arrive for lunch, Rashed was not unduly concerned. "At around 3pm my father came home," he says. "I hadn't seen him like that my whole life. He was crying like a baby. I saw him lose his mother and father and he was never like that. He told me what had happened, I couldn't believe it at first." Mohammed told Rashed that he had arrived at the scene around 30 minutes after the crash, which happened on Airport Road, near Abu Dhabi International Airport - just a short distance from its intended destination.

In another cruel twist, the brother-in-law and uncle were due to fly back to Iran for a family wedding the following day. The boy's mother and eldest brother were already there. "We had to tell our mother, who was in Iran planning the wedding. We were all due to fly out and join them two weeks later. We had to phone and tell her. She was very upset. Now we avoid talking about it and try to push her to go outside and continue."

Events immediately after the crash are still a blur for Rashed. There were numerous trips to and from the hospital. "I remember seeing Khaled in hospital in a coma," he says. "Every breath sounded like he was dying then living again. I thought even if he lives, what's going to be left of his life? "When I saw the wreckage of the car, the only section that wasn't smashed was the bumper on the back side. Nothing else was left really. The engine had caught fire after the car hit the concrete."

Rashed says his mother Farangis Salimi remains the worst affected. She visits the boys' graves in Bani Yas every Thursday evening and cannot bear to hear their names mentioned in the family home. "Even now she still gets so upset. Their photographs are up in the home, she wants them there. But we do not talk about the incident. " The family organised a funeral for the boys a few days after the crash. Family, friends and staff and pupils from the boys' school all attended to pay their final respects.

"A bus from the school came to the burials," Rashed says. "The school manager said the whole school was devastated. Children were crying at their desks. " Police say the accident was probably a result of the driver falling asleep at the wheel for just a few seconds. None of the boys were wearing seat belts and the car was travelling more than 20km over the speed limit. Rashed says the accident has been a brutal lesson in the fundamentals of safe driving, so often overlooked in the UAE. "I know they weren't wearing seat belts, they never did in the back, it was normal. Now I know that a seat belt can save 60 or 70 per cent of people if there is a crash. It could have saved them.

"The police said there was nothing wrong with the road. The driver still doesn't know what happened which I think pretty much explains it. I guess he must have been sleepy." At least Rashed still has his memories of when the family was whole. "We were a very close family. We still are but it won't be the same." Rashed and most of his family do not blame the driver. He still works at the same place as Rashed's father, where the uncle also worked.

"My mother still hasn't seen him, it would upset her." Although no one was prosecuted and no single factor was to blame, Rashed says the accident might not have happened if the culture of dangerous driving was not accepted as part of everyday life here. "It is us, the drivers who cause the problems, we are reckless." He called for better enforcement, harsher fines and more education in schools about safety on the roads.

"Fines just involve money and from what I have seen, that is not an issue here. They need stricter punishments. "If we can teach children lessons now, they might listen and wear seat belts. "If a policeman went into schools and gave a talk it might help. My brothers might have listened then they might still have been here. "And I sometimes think that if I had got the call five minutes earlier, I would have already set off on the journey."

munderwood@thenational.ae