At first he thought he’d tripped over a brick. But it was a foot – a human foot on the side of the road.
It was at that moment, in the near dark of early dawn, that Grafton GP Dr Ray Jones got a sense of what he was in for – a scene of devastation on the Pacific Highway that would affect the rest of his life.
A semi-trailer had sliced the side off a passenger bus, killing 20 people and an unborn child, and injuring 22 others.
Dr Jones remembers “body parts, spread all over the place” and a sickly sweet smell. Pineapple. The truck driver had been hauling a load of juice.
By the time Dr Jones arrived at the scene, ambulance officers had sorted through the mess.
“They had the living people in the middle of the road in a circle, covered in blankets, and in a paddock they had all the dead people, under blankets,” Dr Jones says.
The only other doctor at the scene was an intern, a junior resident from Scotland, sent by the local hospital.
“She was sitting in the middle of the highway, crying. She was totally overwhelmed. I sat with her and we went through the living, from one to the next.”
Dr Jones has rarely spoken of the infamous Grafton bus crash, which occurred 22 years ago, not even with other doctors who attended the scene.
But having worked through post-traumatic stress syndrome, a broken marriage and years of professional counselling, he’s now at the forefront of a lobby group of 70 medicos – Doctors for a Safe Pacific Highway – who are taking a stand against the highway’s death toll.
“We are sick of attending accidents,” Dr Jones says.
“People are still dying unnecessarily because of the state of the road.”
While the Grafton tragedy occurred two decades ago, it is horribly relevant to the lobby group’s cause.
The crash occurred on a narrow section of highway where there was little margin for error.
“There was barely enough room for two vehicles to pass,” Dr Jones says.
“The coroner recommended that in the next five years it be upgraded to two lanes. Twenty years later it’s still not fixed.”
That inaction has also angered Kevin Waller, the then NSW coroner. Mr Waller conducted the inquest into the Grafton crash, and another Pacific Highway crash that occurred just three months later: two full coaches crashed head on at Kempsey, 200km south of Grafton, killing 35 tourists and injuring 41.
On the 20th anniversary of the Grafton accident, Mr Waller described the slow progress on a dual carriageway as “appalling”.
In May, the Prime Minister and State Member promised a dual carriageway by 2016 but that does not placate Dr Jones.
“They’d need $10 billion and they’ve allocated $5 billion over seven years. There is nowhere near enough allocated to meet the deadline,” he says.
“If it happened in the city they would have fixed it 20 years ago. They would have spent $10 billion on a tunnel. In the country, it is out of sight out of mind.”
Dr Harriet Playle, who moved from Nambucca Heads to Coffs Harbour so her children wouldn’t have to travel a dangerous section of the highway on a school bus, is also sceptical about political promises.
She says the state and federal governments have built, on average, less than 10km of divided highway a year. “Of the 373km between Port Macquarie and Ballina, only 52km is completed, with 69km in progress. At the current rate, the total highway will not be completed by 2050,” she says.
Dr Playle, a founding member of the doctors’ lobby group, says important upgrades are starting to occur. The group made a submission to a Roads and Traffic Authority safety review about a stretch of road near Urunga. Afterwards, the speed limit was reduced and two dangerous overtaking lanes were removed. Dr Playle understands there have been no fatalities since on this notorious section of highway.
The group is now focused on the dangerous 42km between Warrell Creek and Urunga – a relatively small section of road where there were 229 accidents between 2003 and 2007.
This stretch alone highlights the extraordinary cost of upgrading a narrow two-lane highway. Dr Playle says the Federal and NSW governments have spent $47.9 million and the project still doesn’t have approval or a detailed design.
Dr Playle and Dr Jones were both on the board of the Mid North Coast Division of General Practice when the idea of a lobby group was floated in September 2010. At the time, board members had the opportunity to speak to a local candidate standing in the last federal election. They all felt passionately about the highway. “Around that time there was a big flurry of accidents on a stretch we all felt nervous driving on,” Dr Playle says.
“All of us had near misses. There is an area where you can’t turn right onto the highway without risking your life.
“Many of the doctors in our group, including myself, have been nearly run off the highway by large trucks, particularly at night at the end of overtaking lanes.”
Dr Playle says the doctors were shocked by the local candidate’s lack of interest in the issue.
“We decided to suss out what the interest was in a doctors’ advocacy group and we found we had massive interest.”
Sixty doctors joined within four weeks; almost half of the doctors in the area.
The group has achieved extensive media coverage, organised a petition and rally, distributed thousands of bumper stickers and erected signs at blackspots.
The group has copped flak for its efforts, with a few local residents concerned that their signs warning about black spots could distract drivers.
Dr Playle defends the group’s efforts: “The signs were essential prior to Christmas 2010 because there was no black spot signage from the RTA despite many major accidents in the previous 18 months,” she says. “We couldn’t let another holiday period with high tourist traffic and volume go past without warning motorists about what they were entering into.”
Dr Playle says the group’s medical qualifications won’t necessarily mean their advocacy will succeed, but politicians should heed health professionals’ advice.
Having studied a post graduate degree in public health, she believes GPs are ethically bound to speak up on issues that affect their community’s safety, whether it’s bike helmet use, pool fences or injury prevention.
“Advocating a safe major highway for the community to travel on to reach their school, shops, doctors and hospitals is definitely a role for a health professional,” she says.
She says local people question whether to apply for jobs, or attend doctors’ appointments if it means they have to travel on the highway. Doctors in outer-lying areas are missing local educational events because they don’t feel safe driving the highway at night.
Dr Playle does a return trip from Coffs Harbour to Nambucca Heads once a week to work at an Aboriginal Health Clinic. The trip is risky, given half of it is over one of the highway’s most notorious sections. But Dr Playle is committed to her patients, so she’ll keep driving to work and fighting for the highway to be upgraded.
She’s also been moved by Dr Jones’s story. It wasn’t for some months after the lobby group was formed that Dr Playle learnt he had attended the Grafton bus crash.
“It makes me less willing to give up,” she says. “I know he’s been through a lot.”
BUS CRASH LEFT ITS MARK ON MANY WHO TRIED TO HELP
Dr Ray Jones’s determination to see the Pacific Highway make headlines is borne not only of the trauma he experienced on the day of the crash.
He understands that a split-second error of judgement on a narrow two-lane highway can wreak havoc on peoples’ lives forever – both victims of the accident and those sent to help them.
“It affected a lot of people who attended the accident very badly,” he says.
“The chief police forensic officer who photographed all the bodies – it was the last job he ever did. The young policeman who had to work out what caused the accident killed himself a year later. The head of the SES had to leave work five years later due to post-traumatic stress disorder and the ambos were all significantly traumatised by it.”
Dr Jones has seen survivors with deep personal wounds that will never truly heal.
He remembers pulling back the blanket covering the second patient he treated at the scene and being shocked by her distorted stomach.
She was eight months pregnant, had a ruptured uterus and was bleeding to death. Her father was a Brisbane GP. She’d been living overseas, but was on her way home to have her baby.
Dr Jones and the hospital intern kept the patient alive with eight units of Haemaccel.
He travelled with her in an ambulance to hospital and remembers the distress of feeling every bump increase her blood loss.
The patient survived. Her baby didn’t.
Years after the accident Dr Jones was reunited with another woman who had survived the crash but lost eight members of her family.
“They were all going on a holiday of a lifetime to the Whitsundays to go sailing. The children and relatives were all killed,” Dr Jones says.
The woman and her husband had been sitting on the side of the bus that wasn’t ripped off. She lost consciousness during the crash and was flown from the scene in a helicopter.
Her husband, who witnessed the horror, struggled to sleep properly after the accident. He passed away 12 months later.
Dr Jones’ trauma has faded, but not gone.
“I guess I suffered from post traumatic stress disorder,” he says.
“I had professional counselling for some years. It was a very significant issue for me, psychologically. It traumatised me severely. My marriage ended up folding up and the accident was a factor in that.”
Before Grafton, Dr Jones conducted autopsies in Grafton and across the rest of the Clarence Valley.
He continued the work for nine years after the bus crash, before realising he could no longer cope with it.
“It reminded me of things I’d seen in the accident,” he says.
DOCTORS UNITE FOR ACTION
Doctors for a Safe Pacific Highway want a dual carriageway from Port Macquarie to Ballina.
The group of 70 GPs, specialists and nurses has distributed 4000 bumper stickers calling for action, presented a petition of 3000 signatures to State Parliament, erected signs on unmarked blackspots, generated significant media coverage and held a public rally.
The lobby group’s members come from the many towns dotted along the highway on the mid north coast, as well as small inland settlements like Bellingen and Dorrigo, which rely on the highway to reach larger centres. They are mindful there is no alternative route from Port Macquarie to Coffs Harbour, or between Woolgoolga and Ballina, and that they live in the key fatigue zone between Sydney and Brisbane.