'One hell of a mess': The people who picked up the pieces

DEATH, destruction and violence. It's in the job description for emergency services.

But nothing could prepare the men and women who would be called on to attend a disaster so brutal and visceral it was incomparable to anything they had seen before.

"I'll never forget it... we had a lot of MVAs (motor vehicle accidents), we were used to death a lot, and got used to it a fair bit but that..."

Charlie Husking joined South Grafton Fire Brigade in 1959, a time when technology was primitive and a hose cart was loaded up and pushed down the street to a fire.

From 1969 to 2001, Charlie was the brigade captain. He had attended countless crashes, but in the '80s he said highway crashes became disconcertingly common.

"A lot of cars driving up from Sydney to Expo and we had quite a lot of accidents out on the highway caused by fatigue," Charlie said.

In 1988, the six-month World Expo 88 in Brisbane attracted 15 million people. The biggest Bicentennial celebration in the country put Queensland on the world stage but for emergency services workers such as Charlie and paramedic Robin Smith, the road toll that came with it is the legacy.

"When Expo was on, I had 27 patients in a week. They just crashed going on a drive from Melbourne to Brisbane," Robin said. "They were getting tired and just crashing, day and night. It was unbelievable."

He started working as an ambulance officer in 1976 in Gosford and three years later transferred to Grafton.

Robin was asleep when the call came through some time after 4am on October 20, 1989. He was off duty, but every available paramedic was called on to attend a two-vehicle crash on the Pacific Highway at Cowper.

"They picked me up from home, all I had was overalls and my stethoscope. I had nothing else," he said. "I was the fourth ambulance to arrive on scene."

Former Grafton ambulance paramedic Robin Smith speaks about his experience at the Cowper Bus Crash.
Former Grafton ambulance paramedic Robin Smith speaks about his experience at the Cowper Bus Crash. Adam Hourigan

At 3.54am, a semi-trailer had suddenly veered onto the wrong side of the highway, colliding head-on with a coach carrying 45 passengers. The right side of the bus was sheared off, instantly killing the truck driver and 17 passengers.

Pineapple sludge covered the highway, the tins from the semi-trailer now littered the road and paddock near the vehicle.

The coach had been ripped open, seats ripped from their anchor points. It lay on its side across the highway, trapped passengers were calling out for help.

"I've never been in a war, but it looked like a war zone to me," Robin said.

Robin was tasked with rescuing surviving passengers stuck inside the coach.

"The hardest part was at the front of the bus where the windscreen was missing. I started to walk in, and the bus was on its side and you're in darkness. Only a bit of torchlight," he said.

"Once we got everyone out that we could - they were prioritised, the ones that you couldn't do anything for they went to that position and the next ones that were more sociable, they went into another position."

"The ones yelling, hollering and screaming - you know they're fine. Nothing too much is wrong with them apart from the emotional impact."

"Once my job is done in the bus then I had to transport the patients to hospital."

Somewhere around the time Robin arrived, Charlie led the South Grafton Fire Brigade crew of 11 to the scene of the tragedy.

"It was dark, very dark and it was hard to see," Charlie said. "There was a hell of a mess out there."

The brigade joined the job of extricating people trapped in the bus.

"We had to go along and check them in their seats. We got them out of one section of the bus, all deceased of course," Charlie said. "There were children involved too, that were pulled out."

Charlie recalled a mother who was desperate for her child to be found amid the rubble. When a firefighter finally found her, the little girl was dead.

"It was a hell of a mess."

The crew returned to the station just before 11am, six and a half hours after they'd arrived.

 

Meanwhile, Robin had ferried patients back and forth to Grafton Base Hospital.

He was the first paramedic to bring the dead to the mortuary, where he set up a system of tagging each body bag and was told to stay there and tag each body bag that came through.

"The second body bag we got out - you've got to open it up, you're checking everything off - when I opened that body bag there wasn't a person in there. There was just bits and pieces of different people," he said.

"I lost it. I said 'I'm going. I can't stay here any more'."

For the 26 years he worked in emergency services, Robin's wife Maree O'Meally-Smith kept newspaper clippings of the incidents he attended and interviews he gave, in a scrapbook Robin will never open.

"Just talking about this I'll have nightmares tonight, and tomorrow night and the next night."

In the days and weeks following the Cowper bus disaster, local ministers and the men who saw it all alongside him became a saving grace as he dealt with the trauma left in its wake.

"The blokes, if they weren't there - you were lost. Management weren't that supportive of us, but the blokes at the station were all supportive," he said.

"You need that, because you can't go home and talk to your wife about what you've seen - but they know what you've seen at an accident site."

Local ministers and chaplains reached out to those affected, often dropping by for dinner or a cup of coffee, their presence a welcomed support by emergency services who received none from above.

"You don't have that support from management, because they thought you should be tough enough," Robin said.

"Every major incident takes its toll on the paramedics, and it still will today."

The impact of mental health wasn't acknowledged 30 years ago as it is today and the feeling of having been abandoned still affects Robin today. But after all the anger, grief and pain subsides, he loved his job, and the knowledge he saved hundreds of families from the despair the loss of a loved one brings.

"To save someone's life is the biggest buzz you can ever get. I've never taken drugs, but I believe that is the biggest buzz you can ever get."

"Not every day is a bad day, there are more good days than bad days. That's what keeps you going."

"I take my hat off to all the fire brigade, the police and ambulance service for the job they do today.

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