A lorry driver who was looking at dating websites on his phone whilst driving at 58mph has been jailed for eight years and ten months for causing a crash that killed three people.

HGV driver Ion Nicu Onut was driving a 3.5 tonne Scania LGV, carrying fertilizer, when he "ploughed" into queueing traffic near junction 61 of the A1(M) at Bowburn, County Durham, on July 15, last year.

David Daglish, 57, and Elaine Sullivan, 59, of Seaham, and Paul Mullen, 51, of Washington, died in the crash which created a fireball.

Onut, 41, admitted three counts of causing death by dangerous driving.

His phone records showed that he was browsing dating sites for 40 minutes before the crash, looking at profiles and editing his own while driving, Durham Crown Court heard.

Onut, who had moved from Romania to Galashiels, had ignored warning signs alerting drivers to slow down ahead of a build-up of traffic caused by a spillage of handbrake fluid.

Witnesses saw him driving erratically, “swerving” and “veering off” across lanes minutes before the collision, which occurred at about 18:15. Some thought he had fallen asleep.

Judge James Adkin said: "You were not asleep at the wheel, which would have been bad enough. In fact you were trawling the internet on dating sites looking for casual sexual partners."

The court heard how Onut's lorry was travelling at 58mph when it hit a line of stationary traffic, creating a “chain reaction” of collisions, and a “fireball”.

The judge told the court that the consequences of Onut's actions were "catastrophic".

Lorry driver Michael Hosty and another man, Ryan Campbell, were commended for their bravery in helping pull Onut free from his burning cab.

Hosty, who now has post-traumatic stress disorder, recalled grabbing him and saying: "Look, mate, if you don't help me out we are both going to die."

Soldier Junior Sullivan, whose mother and stepfather died in the crash, told the court his life was "shattered" and said he felt "unbearable rage at the sight of other drivers using their mobile phones".

Family man Paul Mullen was a loving father to his three children and was about to become a grandfather, his daughter Orlaigh said.

Lauren Cawton, who survived the crash, was left with chronic leg pain and said her life had been ruined.

Fellow survivor Molly Smith said the crash left her feeling stressed, angry and guilty during the final weeks of her pregnancy.

Richard Bloomfield, defending, said Onut felt remorse and passed on an apology from the defendant for the "devastation" he caused.

Onut was also disqualified from driving for a total of 14 years and five months.

Speaking after the sentencing, Sgt Catherine Iley, from Durham Constabulary, described the crash as "truly harrowing for everyone involved".

She said: "It was incredibly distressing and upsetting for those who witnessed the collision, and for the emergency responders, including police officers, firefighters and paramedics, who attended the scene.

"The horror of what they witnessed that day will no doubt remain with them for many years to come."

Sgt Iley paid tribute to all those who tried to help in the aftermath of the crash including members of the public, Highways England employees and soldiers from the 4th Regiment Royal Artillery who had been caught up in the ensuing traffic jam.