'I'll never forgive the politicians': Horror scene haunts GP

IT HAS been 30 years since Ray Jones slept soundly through the night.

He is haunted by what he saw the morning he stumbled onto the scene of one of Australia's worst road disasters that killed 21 people.

But Dr Jones looks back proudly on what he has helped achieve since that day.

A general practitioner, Dr Jones had a practice in Grafton from the early 1980s to 2015. He had driven the Pacific Highway countless times and was no stranger to the road that was then no wider than a suburban street.

As a result, he became a prominent voice in the fight to upgrade the "goat track" to a dual carriageway from Sydney to Brisbane.

"Where the accident happened was on a dreadful piece of road, and that piece of road then really never changed, they never improved that highway for the next 20 years," he said.

"For many years following that, it traumatised me so severely that I became agitated to try and get the highway to dual carriageway from Sydney to Brisbane."

October 20, 1989 started just like any other day, Dr Jones woke early for a pre-dawn run along the Clarence River listening to his radio in the crisp morning air.

"While I was jogging I heard the radio announcer saying that there was a bus accident, it was a bad accident and they were ferrying people to Grafton Hospital."

"I hopped in the car and drove down there, when I got down there, there was just a nightmare."

Video footage captures Dr Maureen Hepburn (black cardigan) and Dr Ray Jones (teal jumper) provide medical treatment to an injured passenger at the Cowper crash site.
Video footage captures Dr Maureen Hepburn (black cardigan) and Dr Ray Jones (teal jumper) provide medical treatment to an injured passenger at the Cowper crash site. Jenna Thompson

Just after 5am Dr Jones approached the scene of utter carnage. A coach lay on its side across the highway, ripped open by a semi-trailer loaded with tins of pineapple that were among the debris of metal scraps scattered along the road. 

Emergency services had been on the scene for some time, wounded passengers covered with blankets lay on stretchers nearby, and in a field off to the side were those who didn't make it. 

In the middle of the road amidst the bustle of first responders making sense of things, was a young doctor, Maureen Hepburn.

"We worked together to work on the living, we went from one to another. They were circled in the middle of the road under grey blankets because that's what they had at that time."

They had a little huddle because it was dark at the time, they had lights on them, so it was the only way they could keep them under observation."

Dr Jones worked methodically through patient after patient then came across a young woman sitting quietly on the side of the road.

"She'd just come back from England and she was going to her parents, to have a baby. She was 32 weeks pregnant," he said.

"I said to her 'Is your tummy sore?' She said, 'Yeah it's getting bigger' - she had ruptured her uterus."

Dr Jones worked with Dr Hepburn to stabilise her rapidly declining state. "We managed to save her life, we got her back to Grafton Hospital."

That woman was Yvonne Bradford and while she survived, her baby girl and 20 other lives were taken that morning.

The remnants of the brutal crash were cleared away, the highway reopened and traffic snaked past the once inconspicuous town of Cowper, which had now been thrust into the national spotlight.  

Dr Jones walked away, never expecting it would all happen again.

But it did, two months later.

The scene of the bus crash which claimed 35 lives on the Pacific Hwy at Clybucca, near Kempsey in 1989. Picture: Supplied
The scene of the bus crash which claimed 35 lives on the Pacific Hwy at Clybucca, near Kempsey in 1989. Picture: Supplied

On December 22 1989, two full tourist buses collided on an undivided stretch of the Pacific Highway near Kempsey, two hours south of Grafton. 35 people were killed and 41 injured in what remains Australia's worst road disaster.

A coroner's report found the driver of one of the buses had fallen asleep at the wheel.  

The Cowper bus crash woke up the community to the need for a highway upgrade and the Kempsey smash weeks later shook people into action.

And still, tragedy was far from over.

In January 2012, 11-year-old Max MacGregor was asleep in his family's holiday home on the Pacific Highway at Urunga, 110km south of Grafton, when a B-double truck and utility collided, sending the truck ploughing through his bedroom. Max was killed instantly and the driver of the ute died at the scene.

Dr Jones had seen enough, he joined a group of 65 doctors from the NSW North Coast known as Doctors for a Safe Pacific Highway, who campaigned vigorously for the highway to be upgraded to dual carriageway from one state capital to the other.

He organised and attended rally after rally calling on state and federal governments to fund the project. He accepted every opportunity to speak to local and national media to help push the deadly highway to the forefront.

A month after the fatal crash at Urunga, Dr Jones and the community organised a protest calling on the government to "make our highway safe".

"The police threatened to lock me up for blockading the highway, but we blockaded it anyway.

"And we had the best rally. Within two weeks of that rally being held, the government announced they were going to spend $6billion and do the highway between Port Macquarie and Coffs Harbour."

"The amount of grief and suffering that was incurred by poor government decisions over many, many years was horrendous, and I'll never forgive the politicians for that."

Through the horror and carnage Dr Jones, found a little brightness in the people he helped save.

Dr Jones kept in touch with survivors Yvonne Bradford and Angela Ormesher - who lost five family members in the crash - as well as the emergency services personnel.

"We could talk about things that had happened over the ensuing years, we did make a lot of enduring friendships over that time," he said.

Ray Jones sits near the Pacific Highway at Grafton. He has been a vocal advocate for the highway upgrade since the Cowper bus tragedy.
Ray Jones sits near the Pacific Highway at Grafton. He has been a vocal advocate for the highway upgrade since the Cowper bus tragedy. Adam Hourigan

Looking back, Dr Jones is proud of what he achieved, he only wishes he had done it earlier. The final section of the highway upgrade between Woolgoolga and Ballina due to be completed next year and he can't wait to drive that "beautiful" stretch of road.

"I should've done it 20 years earlier. I realised at the end that the only way to affect politicians is to take people to the streets. Block the streets," he said.

"Politicians don't like losing votes. They don't want to lose votes and if they think they're going to lose votes for something, they will do anything to appease you."

 

"The road system is being upgraded at a rate of knots now and the governments have finally worked out that it's their relatives as well that are being killed on roads."

"It was the pressure of the people, the power of the people and communities, even in small communities have got enormous amounts of power, they don't realise it, they can affect decisions in Canberra. And they can affect them quite dramatically. And I think that is something that I learnt out of this experience."



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