Why Dreamworld can’t move past its tragic history
IT WAS on a sunny October day exactly a year ago that four people headed to Dreamworld to spend their day at what was once Australia's most popular theme park.
Just before 2pm on October 25, Kate Goodchild, her brother Luke Dorsett, his partner Roozi Araghi and Sydney mother Cindy Low stepped onto the Thunder River Rapids ride, one of the park's most popular attractions.
What happened next would forever mark that Tuesday as the day of Australia's worst theme park tragedy in almost four decades - an incident both the park and the entire Gold Coast region is trying hard to move on from.
THE TOWER OF TRAGEDY
While the name and image of the ill-fated ride was erased from the park map a year ago, what's left of the Thunder River Rapids ride itself has stayed largely untouched as Workplace Health and Safety Queensland (WHSQ) completed their exhaustive investigation into what exactly went wrong.
WHSQ has finished its report and a coronial inquest into the four deaths is expected to take place over the coming months.
But the placement of the ride, in the centre of the theme park's most popular attractions, makes it difficult for the once bustling park to move on.
While Dreamworld visitors scream and laugh while rushing up the side of the Tower of Terror, their eyes are drawn to the drained raft ride below. While hurtling around the Buzzsaw rollercoaster, closed for maintenance until the end of November, the vantage points are endless.
The boardwalk heading to The Giant Drop, one of the park's biggest draws, looks directly over the now-decommissioned attraction. Then, as thrillseekers are elevated 120m to the top of the tower for the drop back down, there's an uninterrupted, bird's-eye view of the raft ride.
The Giant Drop's western-facing car, which looks directly down onto the Thunder River Rapids, was closed today.
Dreamworld has tried hard to obscure the ride, putting up huge rust coloured fences to fit in with the wild west theme of its Gold Rush town.
Visitors wander into the themed-town, which sits directly next to the fatal ride, curiously glancing towards the rust-coloured fences, knowing exactly what lies behind them. Some take photos at the entrance, others mutter to each other about how sad it all is before they move on to other areas of the park.
No signs point to the Thunder River Rapids. Pathways that used to pass over the ride have been taken out of service. However, just visible above the fences are the turrets of the "shacks", all part of the theming for the ride.
Out of respect for the families who lost their loved ones, Dreamworld decided against conducting a public memorial for the anniversary.
Instead, it held a private service for the park's 1000-plus staff before the park opened.
The staff service was a solemn reflection ceremony, presided over by a local pastor.
A traditional Aboriginal smoking ceremony also took place, similar to the one held days after the tragedy last year.
An Australian flag, which normally flies high above the Dreamworld entrance sat at half mast - a silent sign of respect for the four who lost their lives.
The symbolic decision came after Ardent Leisure, the parent company of Dreamworld, said it had plans to "respectfully and thoughtfully acknowledge the one-year anniversary of last year's tragedy".
While photos from a year ago showed the front lawn of Dreamworld covered with hundreds of tributes, only three people paid their respects today, laying their flowers and then moving on.
At the park's entrance, kids grew impatient in the queues as their parents quietly discussed the events of October 25 last year, some only realising they'd come on such a solemn day when they saw news crews out the front.
Dreamworld employees appeared in high spirits, smiling and laughing amongst themselves and thanking the public for their support.
The park seemed quieter than usual - most rides hardly had any lines and a number of attractions were closed for annual maintenance.
Two visitors, who had come from Melbourne, said they didn't even realise it was the anniversary.
"We had no idea until we arrived this morning. It was the last day of our holiday which is why we're here but if we had of known we probably wouldn't of come. We feel a little bit disrespectful," one woman said.
Outside the park, one local service station employee said she distinctly remembers the day, hearing the sirens from across the road. A cafe worker, who holds an annual pass to the popular theme park, remembers the texts from friends, asking if he was OK and if he knew what was going on.
One Gold Coast family, who hold annual passes to the park, said they had come purely to support Dreamworld and the region.
'A TRAGEDY WE'LL NEVER FULLY RECOVER FROM'
Immediately after the incident, the Gold Coast's theme park industry saw a sharp decline in visitor numbers and revenue.
Dreamworld had 1.66 million visitors this financial year, compared to 2.4 million from 2015-16.
The theme park reported visitation slumps of 51.3% for December 2016, 39.6% for January 2017 and 29% for February 2017.
Acting Lord Mayor Donna Gates admitted yesterday that despite visitor numbers slowly rising again, it is a tragedy the region will "never fully recover from".
"They're places of fun generally and that's been very difficult to come back from that terrible tragedy but I understand that all the testing that's been done, we know now how safe our parks are," Ms Gates said.
"It was a one off tragedy that we'll never be able to fully recover from but the parks are doing well. People are enjoying themselves again and whilst our sympathy goes to the families and always will we do need to step back and let people know we're open for business."
And while it's easy to discuss whether or not Dreamworld will recover from the tragedy, those who lost their loved ones in the incident have revealed the true weight of their grief.
Matthew Low, whose 12-year-old Kieran survived after being thrown from the raft, only to tragically watch his own mother die in the incident, told the Courier-Mail his family was still recovering.
"We have spent each week and month comforting each other and learning how to live without her," he said.
"Our grief has come in waves but the firsts are especially hard - birthdays, Kieran and Isla's milestones achieved that she does not get to experience," he added.
Kim Dorsett, who lost her son Luke and her daughter Kate, told her heartbreaking story to the Courier-Mail on Monday and how the family continue to "face firsts without them".
"Kate's girls will never have those hugs and kisses from their mum that every child should have. The baby of course will have no memory of her beautiful mum, but we will forever tell her how much she was loved if only for a brief time," she said.
"We have faced many firsts this year without them - Christmas, birthdays and of course, Mother's Day."
Ms Dorsett said for her, even getting out of bed "can be a major achievement".
"It is a fact of life that I visit my family at the cemetery, no longer able to drop in and annoy them," she said.
Ardent Leisure, the company that owns Dreamworld, announced after the incident it would decommission the ride forever.
This decision was followed by its announcement to demolish the expansive attraction, something it's been unable to do as yet due to the ongoing investigations.
There's still no word on what exactly Dreamworld plans to do with the space once the ride has been demolished, with the grieving families expressing conflicting opinions around what they want there.
While WHSQ's investigation is finished, the loved ones of those who lost their lives say they are still in the dark about what exactly went on.
"(The process) is just ongoing all the time," Sandra Brookfield, a close friend of Kim Dorsett who lost her two children in the tragedy, told the Gold Coast Bulletin.
"We had hoped the (coronial) procedure would be settled this year but I wouldn't be surprised if it's not until May or June now."
In an interview earlier this year, Behrooz Araghi, the father of Roozi, told The Australian his family was still waiting.
"They haven't told me what they believe went wrong," he said. "We're very much in the dark."
Following the tragedy, Queensland state parliament passed legislation for industrial manslaughter, which could see senior executives at corporations charged over deaths.
Earlier this month, Industrial Relations Minister Grace Grace said: "We owe it to the victims of these tragedies and their loved ones to ensure Queensland has strong industrial manslaughter laws to protect people on the job backed by strong penalties for employers proven to be negligent,"
Despite the industrial manslaughter charge being brought in, Queensland authorities have not recommended Dreamworld employees who were running the ride last year should be criminally charged.
The Palaszczuk government has committed $331,000 for the inquest.
A WHSQ spokesman said significant progress had been made in the investigation after collating 100 witness statements and receiving five expert reports relating to the incident.
And while Dreamworld seeks to distance itself from the tragedy, its main competitor Movie World is instead bringing in more attractions.
Movie World's $30 million HyperCoaster, the longest and highest rollercoaster in the Southern Hemisphere, was opened last month, less than two months after the theme park's parent company Village Roadshow put 154 hectares on the market for $100 million.
The co-chief executive of Village Roadshow Graham Burke called last financial year its "annus horribilis" after it announced a $66.7 million loss. Ardent Leisure lost $66.2 million.
Meanwhile, Dreamworld spent $7 million transforming its Tiger Island attraction this year, with its website pushing a family-friendly brand rather than the thrillseeker reputation it once prided itself on.
In a region once known almost exclusively for its beaches and theme parks, the Gold Coast is pushing to expand its reputation both in Australia and around the world.
Mark Howell, the media co-ordinator for the 2018 Commonwealth Games, said the city is evolving and would use is world-class hosting of the games as a "catalyst" to help the city along in its recovery.
"We're actively growing up and the city is moving from adolescence to adulthood. We want to make the city liveable as much as it is visitable," he said.
And while the region will no doubt evolve and one day recover from the heartbreaking incident, it will unfortunately forever be on the back of October 25, 2016.