Granville Train Disaster Apology

I wish to make a contribution in support of the Granville train disaster apology motion passed earlier this month in this Parliament and to speak to this motion, which is an acknowledgement of the first responders, adding my voice to the contributions made by the Premier, the Leader of the Opposition, the Minister for Transport and Infrastructure, the member for Granville and the Leader of the House. I thank each of them for their respective contributions.

It is important that I am here today. For many in my community of the Blue Mountains, the memory of 18 January 1977 is etched deep in their memories. It was a Mount Victoria service, traversing the breadth of the Blue Mountains. Passengers boarded the train from villages across the region. For them, early that morning, it was just another day—a Blue Mountains service heading into town. As history tells us, 84 people would not come home that night and hundreds more would bear the physical and emotional scars for decades to come.

My parliamentary colleagues have touched on the heroic contribution of emergency services personnel, the great human tragedy for the families of those 84 lives cut short, and the enduring pain and trauma for the 213 who were injured. I learned recently that, of those emergency service personnel who attended the scene of the disaster, a great many had come down from the Blue Mountains to assist.

On Monday 8 May I sat with Bob Blakemore. He has given me permission to share his story; he wants me to share his story with the Parliament today. In 1971, Bob took over from Sergeant Ken Holmes at Blackheath Police Station. At the time, Blackheath was a one-man station. Sergeant Holmes had moved to Mt Victoria Police Station, one town over—another one‑man station.

The two officers worked together, covered each other's shifts and generally supported one another in their roles. This was another time in history. There were only two police rescue units in New South Wales—the Sydney unit and the Blue Mountains police search and rescue unit. This was also a time before mobile phones. On the morning of 18 January, Bob received calls from three of the people who were on the train asking him to let their families know they were okay. Bob and his Blue Mountains police colleagues, Sergeant Ernie Sanderson, Sergeant Barry Hodge, Senior Constable Col Clark and Sergeant Ken Holmes, quickly made the decision to take the police rescue truck, a long wheel-base Land Rover, and a trailer full of tools down to Granville to assist.

As we now know, the trains and the tracks were in bad shape. There had been insufficient maintenance and too little money spent over many years leading up to this horrific accident. This was an avoidable accident caused by circumstances we in this place must never allow to recur. As it was a Mount Victoria commuter service, the contingent of Blue Mountains police knew a lot of the people on this train. It was tough on them knowing the names and the faces of those they were rescuing from such a traumatic scene. Alongside the local emergency services personnel attending the scene of the disaster, the Blue Mountains police had to triage victims and prioritise getting people out. These images and memories are never far from Bob's mind. It was only later that Bob would see some of those people on the street in the Blue Mountains and see that they were okay and recovering. But he relives those moments of crawling amongst the wreckage in a confined and dangerous space, two feet high. It was difficult and went on for 2½ days.

I am here today to recognise those five Blue Mountains police officers who gave so much over the days of the rescue effort. Only Bob and Ken are still alive but it is important for their families to know that, without the tireless work of these officers, many more would have died in that train wreck. I also pay tribute to their families. As Bob explained to me, his wife Fran had to field calls to the station over the next few days as people called to find out what was happening, who had lived and who had died. She was never recognised for her efforts and she was very much part of the team. In the days and weeks following the disaster, the police simply got back to work. There was no incident debriefing. There was no checking in to see how they were doing. They were simply expected to get on with the job. It is important to consider the psychological effects on the rescuers and the impact they have had on their families over decades. It was not an easy time, and I am sure there have been lasting effects on the officers and their families. Bob's story reflects this.

For the commuters on the train, 18 January 1977 was a life-changing event. Many carry physical and psychological injuries resulting from the disaster. I acknowledge another Blue Mountains resident who came to my office a couple of weeks ago: Mr Ronald Bolden of Mount Riverview and his wife, Rhonda. Mr Bolden would have dearly loved to have been part of the apology earlier this month and to have attended the morning tea with Premier Berejiklian that he was invited to. However, he explained to my staff that, due to the post traumatic stress disorder he has as a result of the crash, he was unable to get onto a train and be part of this important historical occasion..

One person told me of how the unfolding drama impacted on local hospitals. At Auburn Hospital, for example, the injured were ferried in by ambulance. Doctors, nurses and wardsmen—everyone—pitched in and did whatever was necessary to deal with the unfolding catastrophe. Never before had they seen a disaster of such proportions. I pay tribute to the Blue Mountains residents and the first responders who were part of that fateful day, as well as to their families and friends. I pay tribute to the local police, emergency services staff, fire and rescue workers, ambulance officers, nurses, doctors and other healthcare workers who assisted the many people suffering on that difficult and very tragic day.

In addition to the effort of permanent employees of the State's emergency services, there was a monumental effort from volunteer organisations. One such group, the Nepean Rescue Squad, a part of the NSW Volunteer Rescue Association, dispatched 16 volunteer members. Their captain at the time, Gerard Buchtmann, helped carry the last survivor from the wreckage. Gerard was a firefighter and volunteer rescuer who would also go on to assist with recovery efforts in the Newcastle earthquake, but he describes Granville as being unlike anything else he has ever seen or experienced.

In a tragic coincidence which illustrates the deeply personal nature of the disaster and the interconnectedness of victims, survivors and rescuers, the survivor he had helped pull from the wreckage was a childhood friend of his, Bryan Gordon, also of Emu Plains. Tragically, just two days later Mr Gordon died in hospital from his injuries.

I also want to share that in the day-to-day work we do as Parliamentarians, often people share with us their innermost thoughts around experiences they have had.

Recently at the Lawson Bowling Club, Barry Ward came and sat next to me after he learnt of the apology in this place and told me his story of how he was running late on that day. He did not get into his usual carriage and sit next to the fellow he usually travelled with.

He lives to tell his story but he recalls the shock and grief of his mate's wife when he shared the sad news of her husband's passing.

In adding his voice to the apology earlier this month, the Opposition leader, Luke Foley, recounted his conversations with some rescuers and survivors. He painted a stark and confronting picture when he said:

Rescuer after rescuer crawled through the crumpled metal and wreckage—splintered wood, jagged concrete—on a blazing hot midsummer's day to find the dead and to rescue the living. People were in agony, some struggling for their last breath amidst the twisted wreckage. Rescuers were naturally fearful for their own lives, but they just kept going. They carried on because that is what they do.

I acknowledge and pay my respects to the community of survivors, rescuers and the families and friends of victims. Today's special motion is to acknowledge the first responders. For those who felt forgotten, who are grateful to this Parliament for the apology, I hope this goes some way towards acknowledging their role.

Meredith Knight, the secretary of the Granville Train Disaster Association, was just 15 years of age when she lost her father, Bryan Knight, in the accident. I commend Ms Knight for the work she does in building and fostering the community of survivors, rescuers and loved ones. I commend the efforts of the association in agitating for this apology.

I also acknowledge the efforts of the late John Hennessy, who passed away in May last year. Mr Hennessy was a driving force behind the annual memorial and had been campaigning for a formal apology from this Parliament in the weeks leading up to his death.

With my parliamentary colleagues, I offer a deep and very sincere apology to those people whose lives were forever impacted in Granville that day.

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