09 June, 2007

Level Crossing Accident: 1975

I know I'm supposed to be on a work-frenzy driven hiatus but damned if the need to blog doesn't strike at odd times and subsume all in its path. You know exactly what I mean.

This week’s level crossing accident near Kerang was horrendous. You just expect to be safe on a train and would have no trepidation about catching one, no jitters like you might experience before a flight. My sympathies to those who lost loved ones and to the many injured and their families. I hope something is done to make level crossings safer. It brought to mind an incident from long ago when I was involved, albeit peripherally, in a level-crossing accident near Heyfield in East Gippsland.

A couple of nights ago, I Googled Heyfield and sent this in an email to the Heyfield Family History Society:

In April 1975 my fourth form class went on a camp to Mt Tamboritha in East Gippsland. The school owned a chalet deep in the densely forested mountains there. It was a bush hut really. The word chalet was always uttered with eyes pointing skywards by students who'd been there.

On the last day, one of the teachers was going to be driving the school’s Land Rover back and asked for four volunteers to accompany him. Not fancying the lo-o-ong bus and train rides back to Melbourne, I put my hand up and was picked with three others to bounce unrestrained on centre-facing bench seats in the back.

After coming down the winding, precipitous dirt road, with logging trucks whooshing past at high speed, I remember the relief at being back on the wider, safer bitumen as we passed through Heyfield. Just out of the town and approaching a near right-angle bend to the left, we were overtaken at speed by what I recollect as a white 1971 Holden Kingswood sedan. We could see a longish, rusty red goods train approaching from the west up ahead. “He’s trying to beat the train,” someone said.

When we rounded the bend a short time later the train was proceeding slowly through the level crossing about 500 metres ahead and the white car had stopped. We thought he’d pulled up but as we got closer we noticed steam coming from the car’s radiator. He’d hit the train and bounced back. The train was slowing to a stop.

The car was occupied by a man in his 40s who was unconscious but groaning. We couldn't tell the extent of his injuries but his face was unmarked. I can remember the teacher speaking to him to reassure him that help would arrive soon. We were unable to open the car doors and the teacher felt it would have been unsafe to move him anyway as the steering wheel and column had been forced right up against his chest by the impact. The front of the car and engine compartment were pushed in too. He must have been shopping as groceries were strewn all over the road. I remember turning the ignition off and the guard from the train walking slowly back to his van and then walking back even more slowly carrying a fire extinguisher so we could spray the engine as a precaution. The fire extinguisher didn’t work.

The teacher spoke to the occupants of the next car to arrive and they turned back to town to get help but I seem to remember leaving the scene before the arrival of police or emergency services. I think it might have been a case of the train moving up slowly to clear the crossing (the car was not tangled up with it at all) and us not staying because we hadn't actually seen the impact and so were not technically witnesses. I forget the rationale behind the decision to leave. It was a long time ago and I was only 15.

From time to time I have wondered whether or not the poor fellow survived. I hope he did. He was around about the same age as my dad was then so it was a nasty shock for me and quite close to home. The teacher and my classmates were also shaken up by it. He looked like a family man on the way home with the week's shopping.

I understand that this would no doubt be a sensitive matter for friends or relatives still living in the area and I apologise if this enquiry might upset anyone. Please use your judgment and take the matter no further if this is the case. I just wondered if you or any long-term Heyfield residents might have any recollection of the incident that I've described.

I also understand that this is something of an unusual request for information especially after such a long time. I think what sparked it was this week’s disaster near Kerang and a coach driver I had a chat with earlier this year who told me he grew up in Heyfield and was surprised that I knew where it was. I told him why I remembered Heyfield but this chap was not living there in 1975 so didn't know anything about the accident.

The email bounced back.

Just as it did when I sent it to the Heyfield Resource Centre.

I’m still wondering.


Steph said...

How horrific. I often wonder about people who are always in a rush. Do they never, ever stop to think that their rushed carelessness might cost them their life, or that of others?

It's just not worth it.

Lad Litter said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lad Litter said...

I drive like the elderly in your last post would. I used to drive balls out, metaphorically speaking. Again, as in your last post. Even with increased warning signals, some people still want to beat the train.

Ann ODyne said...

That was so sweet RubbishGuy.

It forces us to think about WHY people have to RUSH.
Yesterday I drove across Victoria for SIX hours, and the things I saw !

Out beyond geelong near Inverleigh I was very impressed by the volunteer efficiency of the SES marshalling traffic on a winding hill around a cyclist under a blanket on the road.
There were many of them and working hard at their own risk.
The cyclist had not been hit, but had collapsed, but all these people and 2 ambulances were in the middle of nowhere aiding him.

On my return journey (Colac to Mt.Dandenong) in torrential rain at times, I was horrified to be tailgated at high speed, and more than several times on rural roads I slowed to the left to let maniacs pass, vowing that if I came upon them further on and wrapped around a tree I would drive by.
The truck driver at Kerang was culpable and we have all seen his colleague drivers doing worse stuff.
We have to share the bereavement of families of the innocent train passengers.

footnote: there was a
'Sunshine Train Disaster of 1908' - I know this from the several headstones at Ballarat Old cemetery.

Lad Litter said...

That's some road trip, BWCA! And the more time you spend on the road, the more potentially culpable incidents you see. I worked with a former policeman who'd been in the accident investigation area, and he told me not to start him about the things he'd seen. And the aftermaths.

Ann ODyne said...

I wonder if your policeman friend had any 'counseling'?
Just back from the Vline website where I was researching my journey to Colac by train, and I noticed there that Vline offer counseling to anyone affected by Kerang.
Weekend papers had a claim by truckdriver representative that "only 2%" of accidents are caused by speeding trucks. hmmmmmmmmm all our own personal observances would disagree with that.
I have a personal horror story of being stuck at night in pelting rain between two big trucks doing 120 kms ph on the Western Highway beyond Ballan.

Lad Litter said...

BWCA, this ex-policeman I worked with had suffered a stress-related illness which left him unable to return to the police force so he was doing IT support at my work as part of his rehab. He told me that when he'd been feeling vulnerable to the demands of the job, his superiors' attitude had been along the lines of "Fine. We're all stressed mate, now where's the fucking paperwork?" As a former accident investigator, he would be in a position to refute or confirm the 2% claim by the truck driver you mentioned.

Ann ODyne said...

we are ALL stressed.
just another reason to be very kind to everybody you encounter.

sometimes crabby people have good reasons to be, if only we knew.

every time a big rig swooshes past me so I can read that lovely sign they all have

"This trailer is speed-limited to 110" ...

I always think ... yeah but the bogie is NOT.

I have just come home from a Big Day Out with Copperwitch and the Mt.Dandenong road in the hills has The Most TREmendous thick fog/mist .. I was surprised that drivers coming at me down the hill were also only doing 40kph. visibility was about one car length.
Like a RockyHorror movie .. where Brad & Janet breakdown and go to the creepy mansion with one light on ...Happy Winter Solstice evabodee

Lad Litter said...

BWCA, there's been some fog around my neck of the woods lately and a mate said to me Blue Jay Way, the George Harrison song from Magical Mystery Tour which opens with the line "There's a fog upon LA..." Mt Dandenong would get more of whatever's around in the way of mist, fog etc so if you like winter, and I do, Mt D would be a good spot.

Ann ODyne said...

re "There's a fog upon LA" ...
it is brown, and clearly visible from the windows of QF4 on approach.

The Melb -Mt.D fog works both ways:-
Sunday morning while having breakfast in clear sunshine at 10am with the Vista from the verandah of the wonderful Kalorama Lookout Cafe, we looked down on all the white cloud keeping Melbourne below us in the gloomy dark (at least it was snowy-white, not LA brown).

When I first got here, a letterbox card advised me to attend the Kal PO - so I Googled to find out where it was, and in the Results I got the website of CrowdedHouse PeterGreen, who lives nearby apparently (he had posted about using the Kal PO).
and that's the story of how I found out about the verandah cafe (because he can afford $5 for a muffin)

I notice you have gallery links ... I am housesitting for people who email me that they spent a whole day in Le Louvre Paris on Friday and of course that's not long enough.
They will arrive home in time to join you in the queue at NGV for the Guggenheim travelling show.
I have been twice to the NY one (- the trick is to first go up in the elevator, so that you walk downhill inside the snail-y inner ramps).

Happy Trails to you