'It was just too big, it was just so big'

BRYAN Robins could be seen as the unofficial spokesperson for Cowper. The most persistent advocate in the aftermath of the bus crash, the retired SES executive has never fully recovered from the images he saw that day.

His determination to see the people who were exposed to its horrors recognised for their services may have come at a personal cost but the feeling of being let down by the system kept him going - through testing campaigns, a brutal court case and paltry settlement, his dedication to fight for a better way helped to change procedures that are still in place today.

Mr Robins came to Grafton in 1982 already ensconced in the SES as a permanent officer in the far west of the state.

"I was stationed in Bourke for four years in the late '70s, a very confronting experience at that time. There were a number of accidents out there and people were dying because it took hours to get places like Dubbo to respond."

So, despite being in the fledgling stage of his SES career, he managed to get a road rescue unit developed in nearby Brewarrina. It was the beginning of a battle for localised services and streamlined approaches he would fight for throughout the rest of his career. 

After a brief stint in the Hunter Valley, Grafton called, the historic city also lacking a suitable rescue unit.

"There was one at Maclean and a VRA in Casino while Coffs Harbour has a very light rescue ambulance but no road rescue."


Former regional SES controller Bryan Robins
Former regional SES controller Bryan Robins Adam Hourigan

Robins said in those days truck and smash repairs man Tom Raven was the man police turned to for assistance with accidents.

"As far as I'm aware he used to take a tool kit and stuff and would do the best until someone else turned up. It became apparent very early on that the state of the highway was in such a terrible condition and we really needed a road rescue unit in Grafton."

Robins got busy organising one with the police, got all approvals, ticked all the boxes until it happened.

He remembers the community reacted "magnificently".

"There were fundraising days and this and that and the community responded in a way that very few towns respond. They were amazing. We flogged it and got this thing up and running very quickly."

He said it was just as well because "the '80s, even into the '90s were the killers."

"The Pacific Highway was just the killing fields."

He said as the highway from Sydney was gradually upgraded it pushed the fatigue zone further north.

"After a six-hour drive (north from Sydney), people would start to nod off to sleep, so it started from around Taree and went further north and further north until it was in our area."

"There were so many accidents back then, it was so busy. For a country voluntary rescue unit, we were just as busy as some of the city units. A lot of people here lost their innocence very quickly."

Despite all the preparation, the number of crashes, the body retrievals, and constant support they provided police during that period, nothing prepared them for what was about to unfold under the veil of darkness in early hours of October 20, 1989.

"It all kind of culminated with Cowper."

Robins said with all that experience, all that training there was nothing they could to ready themselves for what happened that day.

"It was just too big, it was just so big."

Robins got a phone call somewhere between 4 and 5 in the morning from their duty officer. "It was really just ... there's a bus ... a bit of a bus accident down the road."

He said with most emergencies or accidents, early information can be "very patchy"

"You know it needs to be verified and it's not until time progresses that a picture starts to emerge. It was still dark and communications (equipment) isn't what is is now. It wasn't as sophisticated and we didn't have it strapped to our butts."

So Robins "choofed off" to what was still the great unknown as far as this SES stalwart was concerned. Another accident, just like all others.

He arrived at the scene just before daylight broke, the police had sealed the road off. "You couldn't see the accident from there, it was still a distance down the road."

Robins said everyone knew everyone in those days so when he saw the policeman manning the roadblock was leaning over the side of his patrol car vomiting, "Uh-oh" he thought.

"I looked at him said 'Bad one?' and he just looked at me."

Robins decided to approach by foot, walking into a scene he would carry with him for the rest of his life.

The graphic nature of the accident was overwhelming to Robins and thinking methodically can seem callous to a lay person but can be a coping mechanism when presented with such horror.

Former SES regional officer Bryan Robins (left) and other SES personnel comfort 14-year-old Natisha Pitt on the Pacific Highway, Cowper after the horrific crash.
Former SES regional officer Bryan Robins (left) and other SES personnel comfort 14-year-old Natisha Pitt on the Pacific Highway, Cowper after the horrific crash. Jenna Thompson

Robins recalled the cruel and indiscriminate nature of the impact. "If you had been sitting on the left hand side of the bus, the side furthest away from the other lane, you probably stood a better chance of, of, not being killed."

"If you were sitting on the right hand side of the bus where the bullbar went through..."

One of the universal memories shared by anyone who was present that day was the overwhelming smell of sickly, sweet pineapple, an awful juxtaposition to the visuals of carnage many witnesses and first responders had to process that day.

Robins said the truck was carrying Golden Circle products "hundreds of tins of pineapple. It was quite bizarre how things happen and what you remember. The pineapple (pieces) was just so thick, right across the road, you had to walk through it. It was just like something you'd see in a movie... (Robins's memories are akin to a battlefield scene, too graphic to share verbatim).

He said he was still about 150m from the impact when he first saw signs of the loss of human life. A gruesome trail that lead to other first responders trying to do their best in an inhuman situation.

"When I got there our people (SES) and the firies, and the cops and the ambos were there, and you know we didn't have the resources (to deal with this)... It was a scene from, well it was from hell. It was a scene of absolute carnage... the likes of which we had never seen before."

Robins said despite the horror they were confronted with, "something kicks in, something you don't even know that you have sometimes".

"You know you have to do something. You want to help. It's just that the shock and all that. No one sat there and thought 'Oh I can't do this'. Everyone just worked."

He said obviously the initial focus at the scene was on the survivors.

Following triage principles, people were assessed on site and given the maximum support available.

"People died there. Young children, all sorts of horrible stuff. It was chaos and it certainly wasn't a textbook rescue because I don't think one had been written for this (type of crash) at the time. If it had happened in the middle of Sydney they would have struggled too."

He said it took hours and hours to search and process the expansive crash scene area but everyone pitched in and took breaks when they needed to.

"We had SES volunteers driving an ambulance so the ambulance guy could be in the back with the patients. We maximised resources that we had. That's how we worked - hand in glove with one another. That spirit united us - we knew that this was a real test for us."

A lack of resources added to the pressure of that day, Robins recalling there wasn't enough ambulance, police or SES support. "There also weren't enough stretchers, blankets to cover the bodies."

Robins said the thing that shocked most of them was the brutality of the impact and the difficulty of the body recovery process.

"It was like a bomb had gone off. We cut the fence wires and we laid them (deceased) in the paddock between the road and the river."

FORMER SES executive officer Bryan Robins at the site of the Cowper bus crash on its 24th anniversary.
FORMER SES executive officer Bryan Robins at the site of the Cowper bus crash on its 24th anniversary.

By the time I had to go back to the office, media was ringing from Europe - let alone the local media.

Robins said he felt for the "poor buggers at the (Grafton and Maclean) hospitals" who had to perform the victim identification.

"They're the unsung heroes too, the hospital staff at the hospitals, the work they did for days, people came in off leave and did that. It was a massive effort, pretty heart rending."

Unlike the arrival of the politicians, the arrival of a government helicopter bringing angst to Robins.

"The state ministers. It was just bullsh-t. The people there, gathered to watch these blokes mouth off. They were in no frame of mind to hear politicians' promises."

The failings of the bureaucracy around Cowper is still a sore point with Robins, three decades on.

PART TWO: The Aftermath: Part two of Bryan Robins's story

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