Lynne Mowbray |
It was a bittersweet moment in Cowper last Thursday as members of the community came together for a special ‘service of remembrance’ at the Cowper bus crash memorial and to celebrate the completion of the Pacific Highway duplication, from Hexham to the Queensland border.
It was a rainy morning with conditions similar to that of the early hours of 20 October 1989, when a bus and truck collided head on, killing 21 and injuring 22 people.
Almost two months later, on 22 December 1989 at Clybucca just north of Kempsey, tragedy struck once again.
It was just prior to Christmas, when two fully loaded buses collided head-on killing 35 and injuring 41.
These were two of Australia’s most devastating road disasters, which led to action for an upgrade of the Pacific Highway.
Among those attending Thursday’s remembrance service were:
Several NSW Nationals MPs who were undertaking a tour of the upgraded Pacific Highway,
Clarence Valley Council mayor Jim Simmons, general manager Ashley Lindsay and Councillors,
Coffs-Clarence Local Area Commander Supt Stephen Clarke and Sergeant Dallas Leven – NSW Police and police chaplain Greg Holder.
Former Grafton doctor Dr Ray Jones, who responded to the bus crash and was a long-time campaigner for Pacific Highway upgrade,
Former Grafton SES executive officer Bryan Robins and SES volunteers who responded to the bus crash and representatives from Maclean Lions Club who maintain the memorial site.
Dr Ray Jones said that he was a GP in Grafton from 1981 – 2015 and was present at the Cowper bus accident in 1989.
“I was involved in resuscitating the people injured in the bus accident,” Dr Jones said.
“As a result of this, it traumatised me intensely and following the accident I decided to actively campaign for money to be spent on a new Pacific Highway.
“Now it’s finished and it’s a wonderful road to drive on and you feel really safe and I’m really happy to have been part of the process of improving it,” he said.
Dr Jones said that one of the passengers he treated at the scene was Angela Ormesher. Angela and her husband Colin survived the crash but lost their children Gavin and Jannine, Gavin’s fiancée Vicki Lea McGrath, Angela’s brother-in-law Les and his wife Nadine and their son Martin, in the horrific accident.
“Angela’s husband Colin survived the accident, only to die a couple of years later from grief,” he said.
“Angela was knocked out in the accident and she didn’t remember the trauma, but Colin wasn’t, and he experienced the full trauma of the accident.
“There were so many people traumatised; it was unbelievable – anyone who was there was traumatised.
“Now with the new highway, those traumas will be a lot less,” he said.
Dr Jones said that over the years, he became very good friends with Angela.
“She was a beautiful person and one of my strongest supporters in upgrading the highway.
“Angela went on to live a full life and passed away in 2016.
“I think that today she would be up there dancing and singing and as happy as Larry,” he said.
Former Grafton SES executive officer Bryan Robins said that the ‘service of remembrance’ on Thursday was a day of mixed emotions.
“It’s wonderful now that the highway has been completed and it’s great (to see) the people who have come here to pay their respects at the Cowper (bus accident) site,” Mr Robins said.
“Of course, visiting this place is always a sad thing, but I’m glad that the organisers have done it because I think that it shows that people do realise the impact that not only this bus accident but also the one at Clybucca, had on not only their communities, but right across Australia.
“It was an eerily similar day to the bus accident day – it wasn’t raining as heavy, but it did rain the morning of the Cowper accident.
“Any service that pays respect to those who lost their lives and those who were injured and also to the first responders, is a good thing in the healing process and I’m happy to have been there,” he said.
Sergeant Dallas Leven – NSW Police, attached to the Grafton Police Station said that the Cowper tragedy occurred before he joined the police, however in his duties as a police officer in the area he was acutely aware of the significant effect that the collision had on the community.
“I understand that the Cowper accident had an enormous impact on all the first responders who attended and some of them are still suffering today and for those memories to still be in people’s minds, it gives you an indication of what they must have been facing when they went to that accident all those years ago,” Sgt Leven said.
“That tragic event years ago was a catalyst for conversations to be had about improving the road, dividing the highway and reducing the number of head on collisions which almost nearly always result in serious injury or death.
“Since the upgrades (to the highway) have kicked in, there has been a reduction in serious injury and fatal car accidents on that portion of road that’s been upgraded.
“From the policing aspect, the (old Pacific Highway now renamed) the Big River Way, now sees little in regard to serious accidents.
“Whenever vehicles can be divided by median strips or things like that and can reduce the number of head on collisions, it certainly impacts on the reduction of injury collisions and fatal collisions,” he said.