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Hero dad’s last action saves family

A MAN has been hailed a hero after saving his partner and three children by slamming on the brakes of his van just before he died at the wheel of a suspected heart attack.

HAPPIER times - Stephen Astin on holiday.
HAPPIER times - Stephen Astin on holiday.

A MAN has been hailed a hero after saving his partner and three children by slamming on the brakes of his van just before he died at the wheel of a suspected heart attack.

Stephen Astin, 40, of Granville Road, Accrington, was returning from a motocross rally in Cumbria on Sunday.

His partner of seven years, Janice Berry, 30, tried desperately to revive him and a doctor in a car behind jumped out and joined the fight to save his life.

But the super-fit self-employed joiner, who had never been ill, never regained consciousness and died in the West Cumberland Hospital.

It is the second tragedy to hit the family. Stephen's father Derek was gunned down at his Higher Baxenden Sub-Post Office in 1974 by the notorious killer who became known as the Black Panther.

Friends said Stephen, who was 10 at the time, rarely spoke about the murder.

But he had asked for his ashes to be buried in his father's grave in St John's churchyard, Baxenden.

His best friend David Mallabourn, 41, of Manchester Road, Accrington, was travelling right behind Stephen with his own family when Stephen's van, which was towing a caravan, came to a sudden halt at Lamplugh near Whitehaven.

He said: "I dashed out of my own vehicle and found Stephen slumped on the wheel with his foot on the brake. His last action had been to save Janice and the kids."

"It's hard to believe because he was as fit as a fiddle."

"He was a true villager who had worked hard all his life and everyone in Baxenden knew him."

"His family's phones have been ringing constantly with people expressing their condolences and they have received hundreds of cards and flowers."

David added that motocross was Stephen's great passion.

He said "It went right back to when he had a field bike as a youngster. He bought a bike with his first wage and followed the sport through thick and thin ever since."

At the age of 38, Stephen was made an Auto Cycle Union national expert, reflecting his dedication to the sport he loved.

Janice's sister Karen Berry, of Willows Lane, Accrington, said: "Stephen and Janice were planning to get married next summer. We're all still in shock. He was so popular."

Stephen's sons Sam, 13, Ciaran, seven, and Matthew, five, were in the van at the time. Daughter Jasmine, 11, had not travelled to the motocross rally.

Stephen had served his apprenticeship at Riley's Barfitters and had run his own business, Stephen Astin Joinery, for 24 years. He was a well-known face in the Alma Inn in Baxenden.

He also leaves his mum Marion, sister Susan and aunt Ida.

An inquest was opened by West Cumbria Coroner John Taylor in Whitehaven and adjourned to a date to be fixed.

Father David Lyon will conduct the funeral service at Accrington Crematorium at 11am on Wednesday. Wolstenholme's are carrying out the arrangements.

  • Mr Astin's killing sparked one of the biggest police manhunts ever seen in East Lancashire.

Shortly before 4am on 6 September 1974 a masked man, dressed all in black, entered the sub-post office through a downstairs window and climbed upstairs.

Alerted by the screams of his daughter, Mr Astin rushed to her aid and was blasted by a shotgun, first in the shoulder and then in the back. Although dying from his wounds, he managed to push the raider downstairs.

The gunman, nicknamed the Black Panther, became known as one of the most violent and callous criminals in the country's history. He murdered three more sub-postmasters and brutally killed 17-year-old heiress Lesley Whittle, whom he had kidnapped for ransom, before being caught by chance.

The Panther was revealed as Donald Neilson, 38, of Bradford, who was jailed for life in 1976.


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