WORDS can do little to heal the emotional wounds Natisha Pitt has suffered in the 20 years since the horrific Cowper bus crash.
The 34-year-old has come back to the site of the tragedy seeking closure from an event that claimed her mother Elizabeth, her brother Shawn and 19 others in one instant between 3.50 and 4am on Friday, October 20, 1989.
Aged 14 at the time, Natisha can recall little of the actual collision. She may have even been asleep.
But she does recall sitting about six seats back from the driver on the aisle side of the seat. She'd swapped places with Shawn, 11 months her senior, who didn't want to sit next to an old lady.
Natisha's brother instead sat with her mum on the seat directly in front of her.
Natisha also remembers a big family group entering the bus. One of them was pregnant.
This was most likely the Ormeshers, who had booked 10 seats on the bus for extended family and friends. Only two from the group survived.
“I'm sure there was a baby crying too,” she said.
Natisha doesn't remember the impact itself but does remember waking up to what she'd assumed was rain on her face.
“I must have been knocked out ... all I smelt was diesel,” she said.
“I looked around and saw everyone's stuff scattered everywhere.
“I tried to move my left leg but I couldn't move.
“I could hear the ambulances and just remember broken stuff everywhere.
“In front of me I saw my brother.
“When the SES came I said be careful of my brother. I think he had a pole in his head but I didn't really know that at the time.
“My mum - I think she went flying out and was crushed on the highway.”
Natisha remembers being carried out of her seat and laid on a stretcher on the Pacific Highway, but she suffered no injuries.
In the confusion, Natisha remembers wondering if she was dreaming.
“I thought 'what's going on?' There were people rushing everywhere, there were bodies everywhere and people's property everywhere - I just couldn't believe it.
“The bus was upside down ... I thought 'did this really just happen? How come I didn't see anything?'”
Natisha was taken to Maclean Hospital, while most of the casualties were taken to Grafton Base Hospital.
With tears rolling down her face, Natisha recalled the anguishing wait she went through before finally being told about her brother and mother.
“My uncle and grandmother tuned into the morning TV and saw my face. They rushed down from Brisbane and picked me up and took me back home where I stayed with my grandmother,” she said.
“My uncle had to go back down to Grafton to identify my brother and mum. It took him a long time to get over it.”
Asked why she chose to return to the source of such pain, Natisha said it wasn't easy but she wanted closure.
“It's time for me to come down and try to remember what it looked like and to pay my respects to the rest of the families who've lost loved ones,” she explained.
Natisha said she appreciated that people in the area had not forgotten the accident.
“I think if my mum and brother were here they would be proud of me and my kids,” she said.
“It's very hard having your family taken away from you. It makes me wonder why I'm still here.
“My friends say 'how come you're not an alcoholic or a druggo - all this bad stuff has happened to you?'”
Sexually assaulted at 12, her grandfather's death two years later, the Cowper bus crash and her sister's death six years after that, and her grandmother's passing in 1995 - it's been no fairytale.
And the reason Natisha hasn't escaped with drugs or alcohols?
“It's a promise me and my brother made to ourselves - never to do that stuff,” she said.
“My brother would have been playing in the Australian Open if he was still alive - he was so into tennis. He saved up all his money and bought the Agassi racquets and Pat Cash racquets.”
Natisha, Shawn and Elizabeth were on their way to Natisha's grandfather's funeral in Brisbane when the accident happened.
Having had no counselling since the ordeal, Natisha has her own ways of dealing with her pain.
“My grandmother raised me to be strong-headed. I had to grow up fast,” she said.
“I dealt with things on my own. I just had to get on with it.
“I just take life every day, every week and live life to the fullest - you can't forget it though.”
“I could be at home feeling sorry for myself but I don't, I get on with life.”
Natisha admits she's blocked out memories of that horrible day and the other tragedies of her life but said she was now preparing to face them, despite her fears.
She said she's still not ready to read the coroner's findings from the event, although she is aware the truck driver who caused the accident was found to have the stimulant ephedrine in his blood.
“I feel for his side of the family as well, going to all those inquests,” she said.
Natisha said she understood the pressure of truck driving in the late '80s and the associated drug problems, saying: “It was part of his job.”
- A service to mark the 20th anniversary of the crash will be held today from 11am at the memorial erected at Cowper on the old highway north along the Cowper turnoff. All are welcome to attend.
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