Alton Towers victim Joe Pugh has returned to the theme park for the first time as he recovers from his horror smash ordeal.
Joe, 19, had to learn to walk again after his knees were shattered in the crash on the Smiler ride in June.
The university student has undergone weeks of counselling since the tragedy, which saw his girlfriend Leah Washington, 18, have part of her left leg amputated.
This week the young couple’s recovery continued with a visit to the Christmas Markets in Munich – their first solo holiday together.
“I’m so proud of how far we have both come,” smiled Joe. “I had counselling for six weeks after the accident because I had issues with being in confined spaces and was getting anxious in crowds.
“I even went back to Alton Towers because my counsellor recommended it. It’s incredibly difficult to talk about but I wanted to get stuff out of my mind.
“It has been such a traumatic year, what has happened has taken such a mental toll on my family. I can’t wait to start next year afresh with Leah.”
Softly-spoken Leah had been dating Joe for just a few weeks when they went to Alton Towers. She nearly died twice on the ride and spent six weeks in hospital, undergoing two operations.
Instead of being at university, Leah is now living in a bungalow suited to her needs with her family, after they were forced to leave the home where she grew up.
But like Joe, she is full of positivity and has found an inner strength she never knew she possessed.
“I’ve been getting on really well,” she smiles. “Physically, it’s been a slow and steady improvement and I’m shocked at how well I’m doing now.
“This has been the worst year of my life but then one of the best at the same time.
“Even though what has happened to us has happened, I’ve had so many amazing experiences, like going to the Pride of Britain Awards, hosting a hugely successful charity event and, of course, meeting Joe.”
Like most teenagers, Leah and Joe are bashful when asked about romance. But the couple, who live close by each other in Barnsley, South Yorks, are clearly besotted, seeing each other twice a week and speaking every day.
“When I first met Leah, I thought she was a really nice person, and really pretty,” said Joe, who had his little finger fused back on after the crash. “We hadn’t been together long when we went to Alton Towers and I think that meant we kind of started again afterwards.
“Having each other for support has helped a lot. We still talk about it all the time and share memories. It’s helpful.”
The young couple said visiting Munich’s beautiful Christmas Market, which has hundreds of stalls, an Advent Tram, live music and a huge Christmas tree covered with lights, was just as good as they had hoped.
“We’re having loads of fun and want to make the most of every moment,” said Joe. “Leah and I have been through so much this year, it’s wonderful to end it with a trip away together.
“The Christmas Markets are magical, everything I thought they would be,” added Leah. “I’ve bought a Christmas ornament for my mum.
“We were a bit scared when we got on the plane and were strapped into our seats, but the flight went really quickly and we’re not worried about heading back.”
Last month, Alton Towers said the crash was caused by human error, after staff misunderstood a shutdown message and wrongly restarted the ride.
A Health and Safety Executive Investigation is continuing, while The Smiler will reopen next year.
Leah and Joe are set to receive compensation from the Staffordshire theme park alongside the 14 other victims, including Vicky Balch, 20, who also lost part of her leg.
For now, Leah and Joe are focused on recovering from the smash.
Leah undergoes gruelling weekly personal training sessions and physio appointments to build up her strength. She can get out and about wearing her prosthetic leg with the help of crutches.
It has been a painful rehabilitation which often leaves Leah in agony but as the New Year approaches, she has the next step firmly in her sights.
“I want to wear my prosthetic leg full-time,” she says. “At the moment I have times where it’s hurting and I can’t wear it for too long. You have to build up as your body gets used to it.
“But I’m slowly getting there and I can’t wait to wear it all the time and do everything I used to do. Eventually I’ll be able to wake up, put my leg on in the morning and take it off when I go to bed.
“I’ll feel normal again.”
Leah admits she has down days where she breaks down, as does Joe, who finds having intensive physio sessions three times a week tough to fit in alongside his full-time textile design studies.
“I was in hospital for a month and was left with less than half a knee cap in my left knee and half a knee cap in my right one,” he said. “I’ve been told I will recover but in the future I’ll have to have knee replacements so there is more surgery in the pipeline.
“It has been incredibly painful physically and mentally. Sometimes it all gets on top of me and I just break down.”
One touching aspect that has hugely helped the couple was planning a charity fund-raiser for the emergency services who saved their lives.
In pictures – Smiler crash victim Leah Washington:
Held on November 14, Leah and Joe raised a staggering £21,000 for Midlands Air Ambulance, the Staffordshire Fire and Rescue Service and Royal Stoke University Hospital.
“They did so much for us and there are only so many times you can say thank you,” smiled Leah. “It’s nice to be able to actually give something to them and I hope it will help more people like ourselves.
“I was just amazed by how much we raised, we weren’t expecting it at all.”
“It gave us a focus,” she added. “Because we were so busy, it probably took our minds off everything. That was a really big help in the early days.”
To the teenager’s relief, her life is now moving forward.
She was forced to abandon her carefully planned 18th birthday celebrations in July, including a weekend in London and a Capital Radio concert.
But in a delayed celebration in September, Leah headed to the capital to go on the London Eye and indulge in some shopping. And she was given two VIP tickets to Capital’s Jingle Bell Ball earlier this month.
“It was nice to just do stuff I used to do before,” she said. “I had a fantastic time.”
Leah had passed her driving test before the accident and, after a couple of refresher lessons, is ready to drive when she finds the right car.
“Driving will make such a difference,” she says. “I’ll be able to go to places on my own and not have to rely on my parents.”
In pictures – Alton Towers timeline:
Joe managed to resume his university studies in September and is determined to get back to his part time job as a barman in a working man’s club. A keen horse rider, he got back in the saddle two weeks ago but it was too soon.
“It hurt so much,” he said. “But I’m all about staying positive, having things to look forward to and setting goals.
“It’s seven months on now and we have done so well, I’m excited to see how much we can achieve a year after the accident.”
Both Leah and Joe say they don’t want gifts for Christmas and seem more excited about spending the festive season with their families and each other.
“The accident has opened my mind about what’s important,” said Joe poignantly. “And that isn’t material things.
“It’s to live life while you’re here because you don’t know what will happen.”
* Leah and Joe travelled courtesy of British Airways Holidays (ba.holidays.com)
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