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.