The day the coastlost its innocence
By JENI FAULKNER
DOCTOR Ray Jones never imagined his life would change forever when he woke for his morning jog on October 20, 1989.
An announcement came over radio station 2GF to say a passenger bus had collided with a semi-trailer on the Pacific Highway and Dr Jones drove to the accident scene at Cowper, north of Grafton.
"It was horrific," the Mullaway resident told the Coffs Coast Advocate as he relived those moments yesterday.
"Even now I can still remember it like it was yesterday. I had long-term psychological effects and it has taken me so long to even talk about it.
"It surprises me nothing has been done to fix the highway and it depresses me accidents keep happening."
This week marks the 16th anniversary of the horrendous Cowper bus accident in which 21 people died, including the semi-trailer driver, while 22 were injured.
The accident, and another coach accident at Clybucca near Kempsey which claimed 35 lives a couple of months later, provoked a national outcry.
In his findings about the accidents, the then State Coroner Kevin Waller recommended the highway should be dual carriageway between Hexham in the south and Tweed Heads in the north.
The State Government, with financial assistance from the Federal Government, announced a 10-year plan to complete the work.
But, to date, the highway, which carries nearly 5.5 million vehicles a year, is less than 40 per cent dual carriageway.
Residents on the Coffs Coast, and communities surrounding the highway, fear the ramifications of another horrendous accident, yet each day the State and Federal governments continue their fight over funding.
"There is so much more traffic on the highway now, including heavy vehicles," Dr Jones said.
"The likelihood of another mass disaster is so much higher."
Dr Jean Griffiths, from Southern Cross University, has completed a PHD on the trauma of road accidents and she was involved in a major study after the Clybucca and Cowper bus crashes.
She believes if Coffs Harbour faced an accident like Grafton the impact would be horrific.
"In rural communities, everyone knows the person or persons killed, or they know someone who does," Dr Griffiths said.
"Having said that though, people tend to rally in communities, a culture of people coming together and we are already seeing that here now."
The NRMA says, at the current rate of construction, the funding levels of the State and Federal governments mean we could wait a further 15 years for the 800 kilometre highway to be converted to dual carriageway.