'It feels like yesterday': Community remembers 30 years on
THIRTY years have passed since the Cowper bus tragedy unfolded on the Pacific Highway, but to many Clarence Valley residents the memories from that day remain fresh in their minds.
"From one perspective, 30 years is a very long time and you easily forget what you were doing back then," former SES regional officer Bryan Robins said.
"But from another perspective, other memories, like what occurred at Cowper, it feels like it happened yesterday."
Just before dawn on Friday, October 20, 1989, a semi-trailer loaded with tins of pineapple suddenly veered onto the wrong side of the Pacific Highway and collided with a coach liner carrying 45 passengers.
The truck driver and 20 passengers died as a result.
The tragedy prompted a coronial inquiry but also left behind a legacy of trauma for many people who attended the scene that day.
"It was such a significant event for the Clarence Valley which badly impacted a whole community," Mr Robins said.
"But I think we are lucky living in this region because we have a community that's caring of its own and that's helped a lot of the responders over the decades."
Mr Robins attended the site that morning, along with many other emergency workers and members of the general public that came across the crash moments after it occurred.
In the aftermath of the disaster, several emergency workers across different industries were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and other health-related issues.
Mr Robins developed PTSD and depression following his experience with the Cowper bus crash but overcame both through medical intervention and the support of his family.
"It was the most horrible, darkest and loneliest time of my life and I feel so sorry for anyone else who has been in that space," he said.
"My wife, Kerry, was just the one shining light throughout that horrible time. And I look back now with absolute respect and love and gratitude that someone stuck it out with me."
David Bancroft also witnessed the horrific scene, not as an emergency worker, but as a member of the press.
The former 2GF news radio journalist was called in to cover the unfolding tragedy, later ending up at the crash site to collect eye-witness interviews and police updates.
"It's something that will forever remain fresh in my mind," he said.
"But of all the grim things going on there, I couldn't get over how well all of those emergency services worked together. It's truly something to behold."
Although Mr Bancroft's involvement at the crash site was minimal, the effects of what he experienced still remain in his consciousness.
"For me, it's the smell of pineapple," he said.
"It was pineapple, diesel and fear; it was just overpowering and I still smell it when I go past the site."
Although he was only a child at the time, Clarence Valley councillor Richie Williamson vividly remembers the day of the accident and its aftermath.
"I remember walking out that morning and mum said there's been a terrible crash, and seeing the early footage on NRTV of the bus being laden over in the paddock, it was kind of etched into my mind," he said.
"The bus was brought back to Grafton and impounded, and I still remember seeing over in South Grafton, the holding yards over there, going past there each day on the way to school."
Years later, Mr Williamson became chair of the Pacific Highway Taskforce, a lobbying group made up of all councils connected to the Pacific Highway that demanded the road be upgraded to a dual carriageway.
However, this group will soon disband once the highway upgrade is complete.
"It's been a challenge, it's been a fight, but I think the taskforce has been incredibly successful in lobbying for that to happen," he said.
To coincide with the anniversary, The Daily Examiner will release a six-part podcast series which examines the Cowper bus tragedy in greater detail.
Bryan Robins was one of the first people contacted for the project.
"It's not an easy thing to be contacted almost out of the blue and be asked to help put together a factual story," he said.
"But it didn't take long after sitting down for the interview that I realised the motives behind this project were completely honest and the attitude towards it was totally professional."
Mr Robins listened to the first episode earlier in the week and has described it as an emotional roller coaster.
"There's quite a few twists and turns that will shock people, but I overwhelmingly support the concept and wish it well," he said.
"I think it's important that the whole story be told."