The faces behind the region's worst tragedy

1st May 2020 12:00 PM
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These are the unknown faces behind what remains the biggest tragedy in the Clarence Valley. One that that shook the region 30 years ago. 

Just before 4am on Friday, October 20, 1989, a semi-trailer and a passenger coach collided head-on along the NSW Pacific Highway at Cowper, killing 21 people. It became known as the worst road disaster in Australia's history.

For those left behind, be they survivor, rescuer or family, the trauma from that day is forever burned into their consciousness.


Yvonne Bradford
Yvonne Bradford Daily Examiner


Hours after one of Australia's worst road disasters, Yvonne Bradford woke up in the intensive care unit at Brisbane's Prince Charles Hospital with no memory of how she got there.

It wasn't until years later, at a memorial for the Cowper Bus Disaster that she began to piece together what happened to her and her unborn daughter - with one of the doctors who helped save her, Ray Jones.

Read Yvonne's story here


Maureen Hepburn
Maureen Hepburn Daily Examiner


London-born, Scottish-raised Doctor Maureen Hepburn was in the early stages of her medical career as she was thrust into the war zone that was Cowper.

The advertisement responsible for taking her halfway around the world to the quiet regional centre of Grafton seemed like the perfect opportunity and place to gain more hands-on experience before completing her GP training.

But never could the junior doctor have imagined the magnitude of experience she was about to encounter just weeks of her arrival.

Read Maureen's story here


Robin Smith
Robin Smith Daily Examiner


Death, destruction and violence. It's in the job description for emergency services.

Paramedic Robin Smith was asleep when the call came through some time after 4am on the morning of the crash. He was off duty, but every available paramedic was called on to attend a two-vehicle crash on the Pacific Highway at Cowper.

"They picked me up from home, all I had was overalls and my stethoscope. I had nothing else," he said. "I was the fourth ambulance to arrive on scene."

Read Robin's story here


Kay Paine
Kay Paine Daily Examiner


Grafton Base Hospital acting director of nursing, Kay Paine awoke to the call countless medical staff received that morning.

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.

"Everyone knew what they had to do. We had the accident and emergency staff who were very experienced staff and they handled the admissions quite well."

However, Kay's job wasn't to care for the living..

Read Kay's story here


Kellie Redenbach
Kellie Redenbach Daily Examiner


In her ordinary life she's a postal worker, wife and mum of two. But through the difficult lens of Cowper, Kellie Redenbach has spent most of her life carrying the consequences of her father David Hutchins' actions; a truck driver's daughter who was not only robbed of her dad but a young girl that had to come to terms that his death was directly associated with the killing of 20 other innocent people.

She always knew her dad had died in a truck crash, but it wasn't until her mid-teens that she learned the gravity of her father's actions.

"It was so confronting. I just couldn't believe that it had happened. It wasn't just dad had died anymore."

Read Kellie's story here


Kevin Waller
Kevin Waller Daily Examiner


Of the many tragedies he investigated, one incident stayed with NSW State coroner Kevin Waller his entire life: the Cowper bus disaster.

"I wouldn't be game to drive on the Pacific Highway. If I had to go to Brisbane, I would fly," he told The Daily Telegraph in 2012.

Mr Waller led the 1990 inquest seeking to understand what led to the brutal deaths of 21 people in what was Australia's worst road disaster at the time, when a semi-trailer veered onto the wrong side of the road, colliding with a coach.

What he uncovered in the inquest was disturbing.

Read about the inquest here




The Daily Examiner is honoured to share the stories of more than 30 people involved in this tragedy. The result of this seven-month project was a podcast series complimented by an exclusive series of feature stories which delved into the personal accounts of those affected by the worst road crash in the Valley's history.

This investigation series can be found HERE or listen to the podcast below: