’They would never be the same again’
UNLIKE the old saying goes, time does not heal all wounds. The women and men who witnessed the scene of the Cowper bus crash, know this all too well.
As does the man who helps them through unfathomable trauma.
"That is the greatest cardinal load of garbage I've ever heard in my life. And that's come from professional people. The fact is, it's implanted in our mind forever, for as long as we live. And the only thing that can happen is if we have the surroundings that enable us to cope better with what had happened."
Salvation Army Lieutenant-Colonel Don Woodland has attended the aftermath of some of Australia's most disastrous events. He was the first person to create a trauma counselling service for the armed forces, paramedics and police force and was there as Australia looked on in shock at the Port Arthur massacre, the Bali bombings and Cyclone Tracy.
"It doesn't matter what the uniform is, it doesn't matter what sort of shoes or boots they put on or head gear they've got on, there's a human being underneath that,"
"Everyone who even goes to a trauma, which is a frontline operation, he was there. He saw it. He felt it. He smelt it. And he listened to it. And they were thing things that are perfectly normal to everybody, but his workload as far as trauma goes. Well, it's a bit like the bucket that's full."
The moment he heard about the Cowper bus crash, Col. Woodland knew he was needed.
"I was on my way to Lismore in my car … then I picked up the Cowper incident on the news. I can't remember where it was, but I took the next off-road," he said.
A semi-trailer had veered to the wrong side of the road, colliding with a coach. 21 people died as a result, but the toll it would take on the people who attended the scene was unmeasurable.
Listen to Col. Woodland's story in episode 3 of the Cowper podcast:
"I believe that God had plans for us each day and sometimes he'll only reveal that plan right on the spot and it was absolutely amazing that I was up past Newcastle and I picked up that news and so I cut across onto the New England Highway and arrived at the Cowper scene roughly around half-past ten in the morning."
By that time the patients had been taken to nearby hospitals, but emergency personnel remained at the scene to clean away the disaster that lay before them.
Col. Woodland began chatting to those at the scene, doing what he could to prepare them for what might happen next.
"I spoke about some of the effects of trauma, those men would never be the same again in their lives," he said.
"They would need to be very careful about how it would affect them and how it would affect their family. Because at the end of the day, an emergency worker goes home, nothing's changed in the family, but everything's changed in his world."
In the early hours of Saturday morning, Col. Woodland found himself at Grafton Base Hospital amid the bustle of patients, staff and families desperately trying to obtain news of their loved ones, he was eager to help in any way he could.
"The charge sister of the hospital came looking for me and said, 'could you please come and talk to this person on the phone; she's most distraught'," he said.
"The lady was screaming away and since the first news of the bus accident, she had been trying to find out … whether her 12-year-old daughter was alive or not."
"She started describing her daughter to me, and what she was wearing and all the rest of it. She had been sitting on the right side of the bus when the semi-trailer just opened up the whole bus like a can of sardines and this little lass was taken from this world in a split second."
"There's two things I can say. And I shouldn't have said it, but I did. I just felt it upon my heart. I said, your daughter will not be coming home and the other thing that I can assure you is that your daughter did not suffer. She would have been taken from this world instantly."
"And you know, in the scene of the motor vehicle accident, that's not the most unpleasant way to go."
Col. Woodland spoke to the mother for some time about her little girl, comforting her in the moment of despair.
"After about 25 minutes with her on the phone she began to laugh. And she was telling me some of the things that her daughter had done that brought joy and happiness to the family," he said.
"That's an amazing transition from sheer desperation and I'll never forget when the woman said, 'how can I ever thank you?' The death of her daughter! How can I ever thank you? And that's the kind of comment that makes you full of courage and you keep going whatever the case."
Col. Woodland has spent much of his surrounded by the affect trauma can have, it is an aspect of human nature he believes is "part of life".
"Trauma is anything and the word anything is in big, bold capital letters. And that's anything that causes a person to have a strong physical and emotional reaction. Now that takes in everybody that's walking around the world," he said.