The young couple who suffered life-changing injuries in a horror crash on The Smiler at Alton Towers are about to marry seven years on. Leah Washington, 24, and Joe Pugh, 25, had only been dating for one week when they visited the theme park in their teens in 2015.
They were sitting side-by-side together on the rollercoaster when the horrific accident occurred – resulting in Leah having to have her left leg amputated. The couple drifted apart in the difficult months that followed, but are now happily engaged after overcoming obstacles in their relationship.
Joe popped the question whilst they were on holiday in Venice, leaving Leah in tears of joy. “When I proposed to Leah I didn’t actually say the words, ‘Will you marry me?’” Joe said in an interview with OK!. “I just got down on one knee in a quiet Venice side street, showed her the ring and then found myself suddenly speechless.”
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Lead said: “We were in the middle of shooting photos for my influencer work and I immediately burst into tears – and then couldn’t stop crying. I was in shock as I’d only ever made passing comments about marriage.
“After everything we’ve been through, we’ve had to do a lot of growing up quickly, so I didn’t want to rush this. His proposal was a beautiful surprise to me – but he’d secretly asked my dad for his permission.”
She added: “If you’d told either of us during the weeks that followed our horrific accident at Alton Towers that we’d be planning our wedding now, I don’t think we’d have believed it. I wish I could go back in time and say, ‘Everything will work out. This traumatic event won’t stop you from doing whatever you want to do – it’ll just take you a little longer.’”
The newly engaged couple started their romance when Leah was 17 and Joe was 18. They had mutual friends and Joe made the first move by messaging Leah on Facebook.
“We started dating and our conversations just never dried up,” Leah said. “Life was simple and we’d giggle over silly things. Our biggest concern back then was our plans to go to different universities.”
‘I woke up to find my leg missing’
This changed when they went to Alton Towers on June 2, 2015, to celebrate making their relationship official. “We headed straight for the 14-loop rollercoaster, The Smiler,” recalled teaching assistant and influencer Leah. “We queued for hours but happily chatted away before finally taking our seats at the front of the ride.
“Technical issues kept us waiting at the top of a 90ft drop, but I assumed they were fixing the problem. Then, 15 minutes later, we suddenly lurched into the test cart in front of us – there was screaming and blood. We were trapped.
“My legs were caught between the safety bar and the ride in front. Terrified and in excruciating pain, I was quickly losing sensation in my left leg. I asked Joe for his phone because I’d left mine in the lockers. I wanted to call Mum as well as ring 999, as I genuinely thought we’d been forgotten.
“He replied, ‘I can’t because my finger is hanging off.’ When we were finally freed – it seemed like the longest 30 minutes of my life – I was airlifted to hospital while Joe was rushed there by ambulance.
“I woke up the following day to find most of my left leg was missing – and so was Joe.”
‘We took 10 steps back…all romance was gone’
The couple had been put on separate wards. At 17, Leah was still considered a child, while Joe was in the adult trauma ward with two shattered kneecaps. They were reunited a week later with Joe wearing casts on his legs and his arms.
“But it didn’t feel good,” said Leah. “It was awkward,” admitted Joe, who works in industrial manufacturing. “Neither of us had much to say. The small stuff we’d thrived on seemed stupid, yet neither of us wanted to address the big stuff. We took 10 steps back in our relationship.”
Leah was discharged from the hospital after seven weeks. She had to use a wheelchair for three months, while Joe used one for a month. “We needed our parents to take us anywhere, even dates, in case we needed help going to the loo – not what a young couple wants,” said Leah.
“I remember sitting glumly at a restaurant with our parents making small talk. All romance was gone.” But the pair persevered, and after four months, Joe was able to drive again.
‘Seeing each other at our lowest made our bond stronger’
“That was the turning point and we began properly starting to fall in love,” said Joe. “Taking Leah to the zoo was a big moment for us.” There were still some tricky moments to navigate, though.
“It all went great until I needed the toilet,” Leah explained. “I was used to having Mum come in with me, but I couldn’t ask Joe. However, seeing each other at our lowest made our bond stronger.”
With Joe’s injuries being less serious than Leah’s, he returned to some form of his old life sooner. “We drifted furthest away from each other,” he recalled.
“Leah’s whole life was physio, hospital appointments and getting used to her prosthetic leg. My injuries were less severe, so I was keen to go to pubs with my mates.
“Leah was upset one night because I went out with friends when we were meant to hang out together. I was still only 19 and did not have the emotional maturity to understand how my actions of her were affecting her.
“But we talked it through and I realized there was a new normal now. I needed to show Leah how much I cared.”
“We were on similar journeys but experiencing them separately,” added Leah. “We’d only been in an official relationship for a week when the crash happened. We had to adapt to the injuries, the public attention and go through a court case.”
Along with the other victims, Leah and Joe successfully sued the owners of Alton Towers for £5 million. In 2017, Leah bought a bungalow in South Yorkshire specially adapted to her needs.
Initially, her parents lived with her. But in November last year they left and Joe moved in.
“We did some decorating. Assembling the flat-pack furniture was difficult with our injuries, but together we coped and had a laugh,” said Leah.
“I love living with Joe. The only thing he moans about is when I’ve taken my leg off to get in bed and then decide I want a cup of tea, but he always goes and makes it for me. Although we’re known for what happened that day, it is such a small part of our life now.
“We barely talk about it anymore. We’ve had therapy but neither of us felt like it helped.
“The only time we discuss it is if we’re triggered by seeing something on social media. Now, it doesn’t bother me when people stare or make comments online about ‘milking’ the crash.
“I’ve got bigger things to concentrate on, like getting better. Joe always gives me compliments and tells me that I’m beautiful.”
“We even supported each other when we were invited to visit Alton Towers again six months after the accident,” Joe said “That visit was part of our closure. It was surreal to see the ride again which changed our lives. We don’t go to theme parks any more.”
The couple plan to tie the knot in 2024, and are thinking of exchanging vows in the Greek island of Santorini. They dream of buying a modified house together one day, living surrounded by fields and chickens.
“Mostly, we want to spend a lifetime appreciating each other, drinking tequila, seeing the world together and just being happy. That’s all that really matters,” added Leah.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.