Former nurse reveals final journey for fatal victims

WHEN Grafton Base Hospital went into disaster mode 30 years ago, it was a strange twist of fate that had prepared them for that horrific day.

An incident before the Cowper bus tragedy led Grafton's regional hospital to be better prepared for such an event.

A coach overturned on the Pacific Highway on the outskirts of Grafton and 51 people were injured, none fatally.

But according Grafton Base Hospital acting director of nursing, Kay Paine it was this incident and the expertise of staff that helped pull them through the disaster that would hit mere weeks later.

"The injuries were not severe, only seven were admitted with minor injuries and we were able to send the walking wounded and others away in another bus later that day," Kay said.

COWPER: Kay Paine recounts tragedy: Former director of nursing at Grafton Base Hospital Kay Paine recounts the Cowper bus tragedy that unfolded.
COWPER: Kay Paine recounts tragedy: Former director of nursing at Grafton Base Hospital Kay Paine recounts the Cowper bus tragedy that unfolded.

"We did learn a lot in relation to our disaster plan and we added a lot of things that certainly helped with the operation when the Cowper bus tragedy occurred."

Kay woke to the call so many others received in the early hours of October 20, 1989.

"I was sound asleep at home and the assistant director of nursing rang me to say there had been an accident," she said.

"I inadvertently went back to sleep that night and she quickly rang me again and she said 'You do have to come, it is so very bad'."

Just before 4am, a semi-trailer crossed to the wrong side of the Pacific Highway and collided head-on with a coach carrying 45 passengers.

The right side of the bus was ripped open, 17 passengers and the truck driver were instantly killed and 23 were injured.

Thirteen patients were rushed to Grafton Base Hospital. Those in the worst conditions were flown to Lismore Base Hospital and the less severely injured were taken to Maclean Hospital.

It was injury on a scale the country hospitals had never seen before.

"We were very proud of how we managed the disaster, I think that the earlier experience helped us to get our plan together better and everything went quite smoothly," Kay said.

"Everyone knew what they had to do. We had the senior members of staff receiving the deceased into the mortuary, we had the accident and emergency staff who were very experienced staff and they handled the admissions quite well."

Among the most critically injured was a young woman who was 32 weeks pregnant - a patient Kay never had the opportunity to meet but will never forget.

Medical staff at the crash site had ascertained she had ruptured her uterus and had a haemothorax, this meant blood was filling her chest cavity. She was taken to Grafton for an emergency caesarean section and while she survived, her baby did not.

"One particular thing I think about quite a lot is the tiny baby that was delivered by caesarean section. It had died as a result of the accident, the mother had survived, and on that particular day, I was nursing that little baby, it was nearly full term, a beautiful little baby," she said.

Kay held the stillborn girl for hours, not letting her go until a hospital chaplain came to christen her and she was taken for a final goodbye with her parents, Yvonne and Alan Bradford.

"I often think about that family now and wonder how they survived that terrible tragedy - and whether they've had any more children."

Kay's job was not only to care for the living. The deceased had been taken to the morgue by paramedics and each one had been tagged. Kay and other senior hospital staff arranged for the bodies to be transferred to a morgue in Sydney's coroner's court.

The hospital's little morgue wasn't designed for the influx of horror it received that night, and what happened next has haunted Kay ever since.

A truck driver was sent from Brisbane with a refrigerated truck to ferry the bodies back to Sydney, retracing the treacherous trip that had cost them their lives.

"That experience for that truck driver must have been just so bad," Kay said.

The truck didn't arrive until the early hours of Saturday morning - about 2am on the 21st.

"He had broken down on a couple of occasions, and when he had arrived, I met him, and I invited him in to come and wash his hands," she said.

"I didn't think at the time of the strewn, bagged bodies over the mortuary floor and I think he must have been absolutely devastated."

"I gave him tea and sandwiches and that poor man never left the cabin of the truck that night."

That truck driver has never been identified. He assisted forensic officers and hospital staff to carefully load the truck. He was not trained for the tasks he had to do that night, and it is not known whether he received any counselling in the aftermath.

But, he was not alone in the truck's cabin as he drove 20 of the deceased from one of Australia's worst road incidents to the coroner's court where what led to their deaths would hopefully one day be understood.

Sitting next to the truck driver was a forensic officer from the Disaster Victim Identification unit, one of the people who handled the at-times excruciating task of identifying the dead.

The organised chaos at the hospital continued into the day following the crash, Kay and other staff had worked methodically to save as many crash victims as possible - while also attending the everyday patients walking through the door.

Media swarmed the site, desperate for a story once the crash scene was cleared away, Kay remembers the extreme lengths they went to get it.

"They were anxious to get to talk to people, and there was a couple of occasions where they had posed as visitors and gone into the hospital which was a bit upsetting," Kay said.

"We had to be very aware of that and the CEO, he had so many responsibilities and there should've been really someone allocated to looking after the media, full stop."

"That was an experience, a good experience for us to have. To know in the future what to do if we had a similar thing happen to us."

In the aftermath, life continued at the hospital as it always had, doctors, nurses and health staff went about the day to day. But the experience of that day has always been in the back of mind for many involved.

"We were offered debriefing and counselling through the community health staff, I don't think all of us had that counselling, some were not keen to have it," Kay said.

Former acting director of nursing Kaye Paine meets survivor Yvonne Bradford.
Former acting director of nursing Kaye Paine meets survivor Yvonne Bradford. Jarrard Potter

"Myself and one of my colleagues attended a session at the ambulance station where they had received a visit from a psychologist in Sydney who did the debriefing for them and we were invited to that session which I found very helpful."

On the 30th anniversary of the Cowper bus disaster, the family she has never forgotten attended the memorial ceremony less than a kilometre from the crash site.

And finally, Kay got to meet the parents of that little girl.



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