'WHEN GOOD FAMILIES MEET TRAGEDY'
The School Bus Rail Crossing Crash - 1960
Speaker: Dr. Charles Bridges -Webb
Written by: Dr. Charles Bridges-Webb
During my school years I had no career plans other than that I was not going to be a doctor like my father and grandfather. My wish to become a farmer was discouraged by my parents. Only when my father needed an operation for cancer in my last year at school did I suddenly change my mind. If I could not be a farmer, then I would be a country doctor.
After an overseas trip to see the world in 1959 1 became engaged to Anne and started to look for a country practice. My father was an anaesthetist who happened to work with a dentist whose son, Ted Fleming, was a doctor in Traralgon looking for another partner in the practice. We visited them, decided it was what we wanted, and never looked anywhere else.
The Traralgon Medical Group, as it was then known, practised out of one end of an old house at 20 Kay Street, on the corner of Church Street. We lived in the other end.
The overseas trip had opened my eyes to the history of buildings and landscape, and I came home seeing my surroundings anew and asking why is it like this? How did it get to be this way? Anne and I spent much of our spare time in our new environment exploring Gippsland and asking such questions. It was this that lead me to become involved with others interested in local history, and particularly with my fellow doctor, Trevor McLean, whose family had a long association with Traralgon, and led to the formation of the Traralgon and District Historical Society in 1962. I am not quite sure how and why I became the first president: perhaps it was my youth and enthusiasm.
But in 1960 when 1 had just arrived in Traralgon, my introduction to the town was dramatic.
Outside it was a fine early autumn Tuesday afternoon, in my consulting room I was warmed by the thought that I had at last joined a general practice where I would belong. Two days previously Anne and I had returned from our honeymoon and arrived in Traralgon to start our new life.
I saw only a few patients and finished early. I was about to hang curtains in our new kitchen when faintly through the walls I heard the phone ringing and then ringing again next door at the reception desk. There was a stirring, and doors banged. Then our phone rang.
"Doctor, (I was not yet 'Charles'), there's been a bus accident. Dr Collins has gone there. Will you go to the hospital as soon as you can".
The railmotor train from Maffra was making its lethargic way towards Traralgon to link up with the Gippslander going back to Melbourne. As it left Glengarry station for the final stage of the trip across the Latrobe River and up the slow incline to the main line, the few passengers gazed out at the peaceful dry landscape and perhaps thought of the rains and greening yet to come. It was a routine trip. The driver, Michael Dwyer, knew they were on time, even with the new slightly earlier timetable. After they came around the curve to the straight run down to the Traralgon station he sounded his siren on cue at the whistle board and again as he got nearer the Liddiard Road level crossing.
The bus approaching the level crossing ahead was slowing, and yes, it did stop. But then it started up again and moved onto the line. The train driver frantically applied the emergency brakes, but it was too late. The train hit the bus, then continued screeching down the line for two hundred yards before it stopped.
Bill Todd often drove the school bus that collected country children from the town schools, Kildare, St Paul's, St Michael's and Grey Street, to take them to the high school to join the older students on the country buses heading out of town. The school year was six weeks old and he already knew most of the children. There was nothing special about this day. By the time he left Grey Street the bus was full, with all seats taken and many children standing. As usual, there was a degree of segregation, the Catholics tending to the front, and the others behind. Some sat on the steps inside the bus door, and if standing, the front was preferred for the forward view. There was a noisy buzz of chatter from the children, and squeals when a jolt or a lurch upset their equilibrium.
In Liddiard Road the bus slowed as it made the straight approach to the level crossing, then stopped. Looking right and then left, trying to see around the standing children, Bill apparently saw nothing coming. The bus shuddered slowly forward. The train hit the left front side of the bus near the door, slewed it right around facing the road from which it had come, then hit the rear and toppled it onto its left side.
Margie Atkins aged six was sitting on the left of the bus near the middle. Her brother Bill was at the back. He had just started school and they shared the travelling.
"We were returning home on the school bus, and no one ever knew what happened, but my first recollection of the event was sitting in the front of an ambulance with blood streaming down my face, my long plaits all matted with blood, my beautiful school dress that my Nan had so lovingly sewn, ripped to shreds and covered with sprinklings of shattered glass ... and also a very strange odour."
"I was slightly amused by the sight before me. My little brother was scampering away from the outstretched arms of an ambulance officer, ducking and weaving, darting this way and that, like an escapee dog trying to avoid capture by the pound keeper. Eventually he was captured, screaming and protesting vigorously until he saw me, and then he quickly huddled up next to me."
"My gaze stretched further. I was totally bewildered. Our school bus was tipped on its side, a huge gaping hole had been opened up, like someone had gone and cut it open with a giant can opener. A big black ominous looking train was stopped along the track just down from the crossing. People were running round frantically...it all appeared to me to be in slow motion. My last conscious thought was of something grey, and six little piles, covered in grey blankets."
Heather Curtis was also aged six. She was sitting in the back seat of the bus beside Bill when the accident occurred. She remembers nothing, and writes:
"much of it is obviously blacked out... There is no memory of what happened or of how I got to hospital ... I do remember my blood drenched tweed coat (a hand-me-down from my brother) being washed by my Mum after the accident". Her brothers Colin and Brian were also on the bus, but were uninjured.
Shirley Hill remembers that:
"I was one of the first on the bus and went down the very back". However her friend Margaret Hayes called her up to sit with her in the front seat behind the driver. They were both talking with Marie Windridge about them having to wear glasses. "The last thing they said to me was that I was lucky".
"The next thing was waking up under the bus and thinking in my 11-year-old mind 'the bus has fallen over'. I was half under with my head and shoulders out on the roadside. 1 was about two feet from the wheel. There was a boy lying on the road not far from me and he looked like he was asleep on his stomach. I called out to him to wake up but he never moved. I could not move myself'.
"I remember other children running round crying and confused but I did not know why. Then the Gippslander train came through the crossing, very slowly of course, and I will never forget the look on people's faces. But as an 11-year-old I thought why couldn't they stop and help lift the bus. Next, people turned up and were talking about lifting the bus off me, but they decided to dig me out".
When the train stopped, the driver found none of the passengers or the guard had been injured, so he sent the guard to telephone for help and ran back to the crossing. He found "the bus lying on its side and a number of seriously injured children inside and outside the bus. A number of people were then in attendance assisting the injured. I heard the sirens of approaching police and ambulances". (Deposition in the Coroner's Court)
Ralph Holmes would normally have been on the bus. However it was St Paul's swimming sports day at the pool, and after that he walked to the high school. He was there when his friend Thomas Phelan, who had been on the bus, appeared, almost incoherent about the tragedy. Among those who raced back to the accident scene was Mr Windridge, driver of one of the waiting country buses, who knew that his daughter was one of those on the bus. Fourteen-year-old Marie Windridge was already dead, one of the "six little piles".
News of the accident spread fast. The phone calls that disturbed my afternoon were but some of many, alerting police, ambulance, hospital, doctors, railways, schools, churches, parents. Nothing would be quite normal again that day - shops shut early, meetings were cancelled, cows went unmilked, travellers were delayed - and for many anxiety drove frantic activity or frustrated fretting; or mourning began.
The hospital set in motion a disaster plan that I had not known existed, and doctors from towns for miles around converged upon it, thankfully a couple of specialist surgeons among them. Extra staff were called in.
When I arrived two other doctors were in the thick of triage activities in the casualty department, planning whom to treat, where and when, the most urgent and serious first. I was sent up to the children's ward and worked there. The four most seriously injured were unconscious and unidentified at that stage, so we gave them numbers until we learnt their names. There were priests and nuns coming in and out trying to identify the children and giving the last rites; later there were parents; all being very good and careful not to get in the way of the treatment. I spent some hours suturing the multiple lacerations and plastering the broken leg of one boy, who with his bruised sister, became my patients.
I was appalled to learn that the bus driver and five children were dead at the accident scene, and that there were twenty-three injured to be treated. But I was too busy to notice much of what went on around me, and a little surprised to find that in the ward things seemed to happen as expected. At one stage someone sent me off to have tea.
Richard Flewin, the boy in the bed beside the door of the ward, was still unconsciouswhen I came back to reassess his condition. Darkness had fallen outside and the ward was quiet and dim, but nevertheless humming with activity around spots of light centered on beds. The boy was worse, his breathing obstructed from the swelling worsening around his terrible head and facial injuries, and I knew he needed a tracheostomy to allow him to continue to breath. As one of the other more experienced general practitioners passed by I said to him "He needs a tracheostomy".
"Well do it" he said.
"But I've never done one".
"Well there is no one else free, so you'll have to do your first" he said. Fortunately my new colleague, George Duncan, came to my aid, and with wonderfully supportive nursing staff we managed it together. It had to be done in the bed in the ward, since the operating theatres were fully occupied for hours with more important operations.
It was well into the early hours of next morning that I finally got home. I wrote later to my parents of my experiences, "Actually there was very little confusion - the organisation in the hospital was excellent, all the doctors just got in and worked without fuss or bother, there was plenty of nursing staff and equipment was produced almost in anticipation of our requirements."
The organisation in the hospital did not appear excellent to all.
Margie Atkins remembers:
"waking up in hospital, my parents anxiously gazing at me, their faces full of concern. My father was greatly relieved as he had just found Bill, after a frantic search among the injured children. He had not been successful at first, as it was absolute chaos at the hospital... Mass panic reigned supreme... Later that night I was taken home, having been quickly but crudely stitched up as best they could in the circumstances. Bill was not so fortunate. He had a nasty gash on the back of his head, and had to stay the night at the hospital for observation."
Heather Curtis remembers:
being in hospital " and repeatedly calling out in a distressed manner 'I am going to die'. No doubt this added to Mum's anguish."
John Cahill was unconscious in hospital for six days, sometimes not expected to live. He received the last rites from the parish priest, Father Phelan. He later learnt that his brother Michael, who had been standing not far behind him in the bus but was uninjured, was taken home but missed his parents, who for some time could not find him nor learn of his whereabouts.
woke up to see my wrist being stitched up with a needle and cotton, after each stitch they cut the thread. Then I woke up to see my Mum and Dad near the door. My injuries were a broken collar bone, broken ribs and a pierced lung, bruised kidneys and a ruptured spleen, and a fractured pelvis". She learnt about the death of her friend Margaret Hayes only some days later when she asked her mother why she had not been visited by her.
Anne had a bad time of it too:
I was to have been the doctor on call that evening, and it was she who had to field the telephone inquiries from distraught parents who had heard of the accident but still did not know if their children were involved. Even more difficult, she had to give advice, from what she felt were the depths of her ignorance, to parents worried about the nightmares their children were having. It was a dramatic introduction to the role of doctor's wife. She was later to comment that it might have been even worse if it had been a year later when friendship could have been involved; at that stage the people were all just names.
Next day the tragedy was front page news. "School Bus in Rail Crash; Six Dead" headlined The Age: 'Nine other children were admitted to hospital, six of them with serious injuries, and 18 others treated for minor injuries." The dead were the bus driver William Todd; Margaret Hayes 12, of Traralgon; John Leslie 11, of Willung South; Jane Warburton 8 and John 11, her brother, of Traralgon South; and Marie Windridge 14, of Cowwarr.
The Age gave an account of the accident and added, "Some of the children were tossed through smashed windows and crushed beneath the bus. Others were trapped inside as seats tore from their mountings... Workmen and nearby residents heard the impact and rushed to the scene to help remove the children from the wreckage. Four ambulances from Morwell and Traralgon took the dead and injured to hospital ...
Blood plasma was rushed from Sale and Yallourn for use in emergency operations."
The emergency over, the medical care of the injured could be reassessed. Richard Flewin, the boy who had needed the tracheostomy, died next day without gaining consciousness.
The sadness of the aftermath was evident; Traralgon was in mourning. A minute's silence was observed at Grey Street State School assembly, and Mass was said at St Paul's and Kildare Colleges, and at St Michael's School. The Shire President launched an appeal for funds to help the victims and their families. Messages of sympathy came in from all over the country; the Premier, neighbouring shires, clergy, and schools.
The Journal (incorporating the Traralgon Record, and published on Mondays and Thursdays), headlined the smash relief appeal, opened with a donation of 100 pounds from Latrobe Valley Bus Lines. It gave its account of the accident, and how ''Doctors Strive to Save Four Seriously Injured". It reported an "exclusive interview" with the Sergeant of Police, who gave "high praise" to those who had been involved in the rescue and treatment after the accident. A report was being prepared for the coroner.
The Sergeant's comments also raised the question that was looming in all minds: How could it have happened? There were theories. There seemed no doubt that the bus had stopped, but was it too close to the crossing ? Was it overloaded ? Did the driver not see the train, and move off again ? Of he did, did the bus stall ? Was there a mechanical fault ? Was the train going too fast ? Did it sound its siren?
As the town returned to normal and the tragedy was displaced in the media by other news, a burden of sorrow was carried by the families who had been most affected. Some were indeed helped by financial support from the appeal fund, the trustees of which coped with the formalities of legal documentation and taxation department approval, and corresponded with the families over the ensuing months. Families visited their injured children in hospital, or transported them to their therapy, or coped with their nightmares, or grieved quietly.
The inquest into the deaths was held in the Traralgon Courthouse over two days at the end of May. The Coroner found no good answer to the question of why the accident had happened. He heard evidence from the police, the train's driver and guard and some passengers, two eyewitnesses, and a dozen of the older children who had been on the bus. In returning a verdict of accidental death on all victims he found that the train driver had been well within his limits under railway regulations, that the bus had been in perfect mechanical order and not overloaded, and that the bus driver had done nothing wrong. He thought that the driver's vision could have been obscured by children standing near him.
"It is my opinion he advanced without seeing the train until it was on top of him."
Survivors of the School Bus Rail Crossing Accident 40 years later. Photo byThelma Mayze
Janice Hoppner remembers:
The accident left vivid memories in many lives, but the aftermath was not always bad. "I was unconscious for two weeks... My parents stayed at the hospital for the first week as I was in a serious condition. Mum told me I was in a bed of ice, as my temperature was not allowed to get over normal ... I had been paralysed down my left side... After some months I was back playing netball, tennis and basketball, so I was not physically affected in any way".
Margie Atkins recalls the aftermath with greater clarity. Her face was badly cut:
"deep slashes to the right side of my mouth ... That was the beginning of four to five years of plastic surgery, of which I have no fond memories... My plastic surgeon was a gentle man, very dedicated and kind."
Later in the year the family left the Traralgon area and moved to South Gippsland.
"The neighbouring kids were often cruel. They would call me 'scar face' ... In 1989 while living in NSW my GP suggested that I visit a plastic surgeon in Sydney as there had been great advances in plastic surgery in 30 years."
She took his advice and had another operation on her scars, "greatly reducing and softening them. I am very pleased with the outcome. I have had a very interesting and fulfilling life, and although I was extremely self-conscious of my scarred face as a youngster, it has not affected me much in my adult life".
Margie has also written about her brother Bill:
"A few weeks later as our lives began to settle down to relative normality, Bill's alert school teacher began to notice that he was having problems with his eyesight. Eventually it was discovered that he had lost most of his sight... For the rest of that year and part of the next he struggled at school, and he eventually had to go to a special school for the partially sighted in Melbourne. When he left school Bill went through a "rebellious stage" which was difficult for all the family, but eventually grew out of it, married and settled to raise three children in South Gippsland."
Heather Curtis remembers that:
"the accident caused the need for me to stay home for some time. My head had been completely shaved. I wore a special brown and aqua striped beanie carefully knitted by my mum, and was ridiculed, as kids do, for my appearance. As life returned to normal, each day, as another recently injured person retumed to the normal bus routine, cheers were heard on the bus... The accident taught me many things about life... The reaction of my peer group to me looking different and the serious nature of what happened in that bus probably contributed to me being quite a reflective and empathetic person. It was quite young to be faced with the issue of death among fellow bus travellers".
When John Cahill recovered fkom his life-threatening head injuries he found that he had lost central vision in his left eye. He overcame his handicap, married at 21, and was able to live a normal life in the district.
Shirley Hill remembers that:
"when I went back to school and we had to cross that fatal crossing every day, the children who remembered the terrible accident would scream when we turned off the highway to head for the High School. I had no memory at all of the impact, so it never affected me".
For a long time school for her was only part time:
"the rest of the time I was having physiotherapy at the hospital...I was always being told what a lucky little girl I was. I never felt lucky until later on when I realised what they meant".
Some years later she had plastic surgery on her neck where she had had the tracheostomy:
"The calf muscle in my right leg is slightly larger than the one in my left. As a teenager I was always self-conscious about this but I never mentioned it to anyone."
"One thing we never did was talk about it (the accident). I went to school with John Cahill and it was not until last night (in a phone call related to the writing of this article) that I learned that he had lost sight in one eye. These days when someone in school dies or something terrible happens they are bombarded with counselling. I often wonder if it is for the best."
Anne and I loved Traralgon. We left in 1975 only because I had the opportunity to enter an academic career in Sydney, although I felt torn between the challenge of taking up an academic position and the wish to remain in the country. I was going to miss the generosity of a country community and the space. We left the town, but not the memories.
I am indebted to the Traralgon and District Historical Society, and in particular to the late Valma Plant and to Mary Holmes, for providing information, publicising my intention to write this article and recruiting some of those involved in the accident to share their memories with me. To those who responded so helpfully I am deeply grateful, especially John Cahill, Janice Davies (nee Hoppner), Shirley Keuch (nee Hill), Heather Kippen (nee Curtis), and Margie McGaw (nee Atkins). The Public Record office of Victoria was most helpful in providing access to the Coroner's Inquest report. Many thanks to them all.
THE RESTORATION OF GRAVE SITE
By: Margaret Fullard
It was a perfect autumn afternoon when Jim Hood welcomed about fifty relatives, friends and survivors at the graveside for five of the young children killed at the Liddiard Road Rail Crossing. This site had deteriorated badly and was restored by the Traralgon and District Historical Society members, with a grant from the Latrobe City Council, and assistance from the Masonic Lodge members.
Father Peter Bickley re-dedicated the restoration. He said that this accident in 1960, had an incredible impact on Traralgon and that even though it was 42 years ago, these loved ones remain in our hearts.
There were eleven survivors of the accident present and one of them said, "It was the most vivid memory of her life". In those days nobody talked about it, especially to children; everyone was just expected to get on with their lives. She said that, "Today's ceremony was a great comfort and a closure".