Doom’s Day (4 February)

Wednesday 4/2/87

A Life in Words
a candid shot during camp pack-up

[Since I typically make my diary entries at the end of each day, it stands to reason that the likelihood of that happening on this particular day is slim, even though the wording seems to suggest otherwise…]

TRAGEDY. After packing up etc this morning I took heaps of photos. Then we boarded buses. Erica, Monique, me, Fiona, mima Mark, Brent, Steven, Keith, Cameron, Chris, Glyn, Judy Jason P, Brett H, Becca G Michelle W. . . all on our bus. At first we had fun .. food fights too. Down the Gillies range I swapped places with Mark- he got the window seat – I snuggled back into his arms. Half Dozing (???) I felt us going really quickly around a corner, too fast .. I saw gravel and the bus rolled. I blacked out. When I woke Erica was on my left – head covered in blood; Jody K & Lee-anne W on my right and Mark underneath me, under a seat too. It was a nightmare. I couldn’t accept it as real, my right leg was jammed under the bus. After ages I was “pulled” out & soon taken by helicopter to hospital. The rest of the night & events are blurred. I went into theatre . . saw heaps of people .. Fiona, Kay H, Jacki W, Miss (MF) DeJourdan and Miss (R.) Bowles were in my ward. I was very tired.

A Life in Words[Make sure you’re comfortable: there are seven pages of the scrapbook dedicated to this one day, with as many details as I could recall…]

Yes, it really was the last day…time to leave. Absolute chaos trying to tidy up & pack up our belongings. Out came the cameras too…until now, we’d forgotten all about them. […that was something I later considered a prescient phenomena: how lucky were we to have remembered our cameras and gotten as many photos as we did, within just hours of the tragedy?] With the cameras came some candid shots, of course! A few misplaced items, but mainly the problem was fitting things back into bags and boxes. Most of us couldn’t wait to get home to get clean – shower, wash hair & clothes. A Life in WordsAfter taking down the tent (I’m sure we left some pegs or something behind) [ooh, Dad wouldn’t’ve been happy about that…] we lugged all the gear up to the covered area, where everyone else was, with theirs. Then, a barrage of photos taken as people stood around talking, fighting & mucking around until the buses arrived. When they did there was a mad rush to pack the buses and grab the best seats, but we were stopped by the teachers. We had to wait till they let us pack…then there was a longer wait til we were finally allowed on the buses. Only one bus was filled at a time: girls got on first…

A Life in Words
Waiting for the word. Our bus is on the left.

We chose the second bus because of its big sliding windows [better ventilation, for a cooler ride] (I also thought we’d have a better chance of getting good seats). Jemima was the first on, and I second. She sat in the second last seat on the driver’s side [what I call the ‘right side’ for future reference…] and I, after a quick decision, [aware that others were very likely queueing up the aisle behind me] slipped into the seat in front [of her], instead of the one opposite, where Monique and Fiona sat. [I have no doubt that the choice I made in this fleeting moment was pre-determined; not a (conscious) choice at all. I was destined to survive.]

The rest of the seats filled quickly: we saved seats for Erica, Monique, Mark and Brent.

A Life in Words
The last photo I took. Erica asleep, Judy’s legs beside her and Jody & Leeanne’s heads visible in front

We left second; the journey started great: we ate any leftovers we had (including Coco Pops and 100’s & 1000’s fights!) Elisia E. had a drink container of water [the contents of] which disappeared as it was passed around the whole bus.

Up a steep hill, the 3rd bus passed us, but we soon overtook it again, as it stopped for Alan D. (Who was sick).

Down the range, we began singing songs…Beatles songs mostly. Soon we all settled down, snoozing and talking quietly to each other. Mark compained about the heat, so we swapped places: he had the window seat. I leaned back against his chest…I don’t recall what time it was. I must have dozed off….

A Life in WordsThe first thing I remember just prior to the crash, was as we were just nearing the bend…I was looking across the aisle, over Jody & Leeanne’s heads, to the view, thinking “we’re going a bit fast”…then (it felt like) we took the corner really wide. [In fact we didn’t at all: the bus driver apparently sounded the horn – of which I have no recollection – as a warning to any oncoming traffic that he intended to – and did – actually cut the corner in his valid attempt to avert disaster.] I must have stood or leaned up because I remember seeing the gravel (the road shoulder) before the drop…then looking to the front of the bus, past the driver, to the bank on the other side of the road, thinking, “Come on bus driver, keep turning and we’ll stay on the road” (which was really wierd when you think about it, because I didn’t know what was happening: that is, that we were actually going to go off the cliff…maybe I subconsciously knew) [Yes, I would have, we all would have…]

I remember the front of the bus seemingly stopping, while the rear slid [out, sideways], and slid over the shoulder, the left side dragging the rest of the bus over. [Which makes sense considering that only the front brakes were operational: with no functioning rear brakes and the added weight of the undercarriage storage also located at the rear of the vehicle, there was no stopping the ‘tail-swing’.] The rest of this, the actual descent, seemed more dreamlike than the events prior to it…I remember pitch darkness…flashes of light (where perhaps windows were?) I couldn’t see anything besides that but I could hear metal crunching and glass breaking…and feeling, well, I was thrown once, twice, then I recall nothing: [I deduced later that the bus would have rolled one & a half times, because it came to rest upside down: that amounts to 6 ‘throws’ in total.] I must’ve been knocked out, but as I was rolling it felt [as if it were] in slow motion, bodies and things brushing past me, not roughly or painfully. It felt much like I was floating…doing flying somersaults.

When I came to it seemed very slowly: like the dream (nightmare) was continuing. […emerging from an inky abyss…] My body was in almost total darkness (I was under the bus) [the roof had sheared off as we rolled down the embankment and, since it ended up upside down, the bottom effectively became the ceiling] and I felt an incredible pressure upon my right leg.. I only remember thinking I was dreaming & telling myself to scream, because you have to TRY to scream in a nightmare, even though your screams are inaudible. There was a hole in the bottom of the bus [the ‘roof’] so I could see out, up a slope. [This confused me in the weeks & even months to come (until I was able to return to the site) because I couldn’t fathom why I could see trees still upright: if we had rolled down the hillside, wouldn’t we have taken out everything in our path? It turned out that the angle at which the bus came to rest in the gully was different to that at which we left the road, so I had a ‘room with a view’ of the untouched environment.] I remember screaming to get the “fucking bus off my leg” and yelling the names of people I saw walk past…some of whom told me to shut up. Slowly I realised it wasn’t a dream. I noted Erica’s head on my right, sticking partly out from under a seat, and I could only just see (from my trapped position) two bodies, whom I believed to be Jemima & Brent, at first, on my left: they were in fact Jody & Leeanne.

A Life in Words
The bus as it came to rest. Apologies for the quality of these photos: I took them from video footage stills

Astia held & stroked my left foot outside the bus and helpers tried to comfort me. There was a pair of legs sticking out from the far end of the seat on top of Erica & I finally realised they were Mark’s. I must have been out for a little while because all those people [teachers & students from the third bus] were there when I’d regained consciousness. [The third bus was apparently only minutes behind us, but long enough for some of the lesser injured to scramble back up the hideous slope and flag them down.] When Mark did, he frantically yelled at and abused me…to “get this fucking person off him” Of course I couldn’t & his anger at me distressed me more. [I had to assume it was Erica’s body, and knowing she was (therefore they both were) under the bus seat that I was also partly on top of, I tried my best to keep my bodyweight off it. Pinned as I was by my right leg, with the earth significantly dropping away into the base of the gully, I had to use my left arm to hold my bodyweight off the seat.] It seemed my mouth & my mind were two separate beings because, although I was yelling and screaming, I was thinking “don’t panic – they’re getting help – they’re doing all they can…” [the Mind versus the Witness?]

A Life in WordsMichelle W. was nearby, but I couldn’t see her…she touched my right leg and also tried to reassure me. [I have since discovered that one of the ambulance officers was periodically ‘manhandling’ my pinned leg for signs of response from me; because it was clamped so tightly but my femoral artery was still pumping blood into it, it had swollen to “twice the size” of my left leg, and I was in serious danger of losing the entire appendage if I lost sensation…] 

I was arguing with Mark…I tried to tell him I couldn’t move Erica because she was…unconscious.  But somehow I knew she was dead. There was fresh blood all through her beautiful blonde hair, and a pool of it in her ear (none on her face). [That still amazes me, to this day.] I heard Jody’s breathing, if that’s what you can call it: he was having tremendous difficulty: wheezing & choking [his lungs were punctured]…but I don’t actually remember hearing him stop.

I didn’t think of Monique, nor Jemima or Fiona. I was thrown into oblivion by the shock, I think. I thought only of my immediate surroundings and not even of what had actually occurred. [Talk about being ‘in the Now’…] I remember at one stage, reaching back to feel my right leg…drawing my hand back into view, I saw lots of blood and dirt and fragments of skin hanging off my fingers.  Mark’s left calf had a tear in it: a ‘hole’ and bright red flesh was hanging from that. Possibly the only reason I was not sick (physically) from the sight of all this gore, was the fact that I was in shock. [Absolutely.]

A Life in Words
An aerial view of the hairpin bend we failed to negotiate. You can just see the bus at the top of the picture

I remember, what seemed HOURS later, when they first attempted to lift the bus off my leg…there was a new sensation…painful only in the sense that it was uncomfortable: the rush of blood to supply the rest of my leg, or be released through my open wounds…but it was shortlived…the great tonne [or more?] of metal was again allowed to rest on my leg, as, I found out later, when the bus was first lifted with only one set of ‘Jaws of Life’, the weight was transferred to the other end of the bus and consequently put more pressure on a victim (Cameron) who was trapped by his chest.

So a second set was [finally] applied and the bus levered up evenly. Again, the horrible new sensation.

A man told me he was going to take some metal out of my leg, “Hold still and I’ll do it gently” But I couldn’t bear the thought of him slowly edging foreign material out of my leg, and so yelled “No! Just RIP it out!” [Actually, from memory it was more like “no, just fucking rip it out”] He must have, because I don’t remember the pain from that.

Possibly the most pain I experienced was when they dragged me out from under the bus…up onto a stretcher…I kept my eyes closed for most of that time. I remember chatting away, as they hoisted me off the ground and carried me (upside down – I remember – possibly to stem the flow of blood?) [or to keep the leg elevated, to drain some of the swelling & keep the blood in my torso, around my vital organs?] to the ‘top’.

A Life in Words
Anyone & everyone (who was able) helped SES workers in the rescue.

I was placed under a yellow tarpaulin…still talking to anyone who was there. [Clearly my automatic shock response defaults to Chatterbox.] They tried to put up another tarp adjoining the one I was just underneath and I remember it falling and me putting my hand up to stop it landing on my leg. [It was overcast but I believe there was minimal rainfall, so the rescue operation wasn’t hampered. Lucky us.]

I have no idea how long I waited up on the road, before I left by helicopter. [Days later, two of my friends said their watches had stopped at exactly 12:57pm, so we all assumed that that was the moment of ‘impact’ …and apparently it was pretty much spot on. As for how long I was trapped, then lying on the roadside before my transit to hospital I still have no idea, other than my sister guessing I arrived at Cairns Base around 4pm] Although, I remember seeing Kay standing up…looking at me and saying “You’ll be alright Elissa.” [God knows what her perception of my leg was. I cannot imagine what it must have looked like.]

When I was lifted and told I was going by helicopter (and wasn’t I lucky?) and to shut my eyes, they carried me past a familiar pair of legs sticking out of a familiar pair of shorts…I tried to reach down to him…”Mark! Mark?” But they moved [lifted] me higher up and away faster. From then I kept my eyes closed…it seemed a fairly long trek to the helicopter. [It would have to have been… I almost can’t picture where the chopper would have been able to land on the narrow mountain highway] Then I felt the overhead propellors and I was loaded inside the ‘copter.

I could see the [back of the] pilot’s head, a man sitting to my right (to whom I kept babbling on) and the perspex roof, through which light grey clouds and raindrops could be seen. [Hardly a memorable helicopter ride, when all you get to see is the sky above you.]

I remember borrowing the man’s handkerchief for some (unknown to me) reason and making sure that I returned it to him when we landed. [Courtesy instilled in me by my great parents.] I remember lots of people in white putting me on a trolley stretcher and wheeling me somewhere, [most likely from the Cairns Esplanade (the nearest open space suitable for a helicopter to land) which is fortunately just across the road from the Cairns Base Hospital] but I don’t remember actually entering the hospital.

I remember being wheeled past partitions in a room, wheeled into an end one: directly opposite a set of swinging doors, Just before I was put in there, I recall turning my head to the left and seeing someone, in the partition before mine, with a totally red face….blood-covered & bloodstained…at first I thought it was Brent but realised later it must have been Brett.

I was in that partitioned area for quite a short period of time…some doctor looking at my leg and asking my name, address, parents’ names and home phone number…then I was wheeled through the swinging doors into an unpartitioned room and placed quite nearby Sean D…who was sitting up, looking OK. Again the nurses asked personal details and, whether they gave me a ‘shot’ or not, I remember nothing else…but passing out.

A Life in Words
The shorts I was wearing were cut off me: I don’t know if the discoloured areas are old blood or faeces stains. I would have had no idea (nor care) obviously whether I’d soiled myself or not…

When I came to again, it was only extremely briefly and I felt extremely groggy…I was in a white room with lots of silver machinery [theatre] and they were putting a gown on me, and taking off my ring and earrings. Then I passed out again.

I came to in a corridor; I was being wheeled somewhere [probably to the ward]. As I was still under the effect of the anaesthetic, I was trying my hardest to keep my eyes open. I saw Julia, Mum (very concerned-looking) and Dad and Jenny, then I said “How’s Monique? What about Mark? How is everybody?” [but don’t recall any responses] I vaguely remember Mum nearly fainting and the nurses putting her on a trolley too. [My poor beautiful mother… I can’t imagine the stress she was under. She had had the utter misfortune earlier of sitting with two of the dead children’s mothers at the very moment they were called to be dealt their worst nightmares.]

The next and last thing I remember from that day was finding myself in my room in Ward C West (floor 3). There were lots of people, mostly visitors, milling around. I can only remember talking to Sharon and Harry B. I was unaware of any pain in my leg(s) or the catheter they had ‘implanted’. I didn’t even realise I had no underwear on. I was wearing a hospital nightie. I remember being quite ‘chirpy’ (obviously still in shock) and asking people questions. I had missed the news but heard that it was a ‘national disaster’. [Oddly, I must admit I felt a little ‘thrilled’ about the whole country knowing and talking about us. It goes to show just how powerful Ego can be. Shock can deny you the gravity of a situation but may have no effect on Ego.]

Although visiting hours officially ended at 8pm, I think the hospital staff had quite some difficulty in removing all the visitors (especially relatives) by 8:45pm.A Life in Words

I remember still wanting to talk when everyone had left: Jacque seemed the most willing, aside from Miss Bowles. Miss DeJourdan seemed very quiet and Kay appeared to do much more listening than talking. Fiona was quite absent from this world…it would take at least 3 calls of her name before she would turn to look at whomever was calling, then when asked a question, would either nod, or just look at you, not understanding or comprehending, even ignoring. She slept the most and longest out of the six of us. I wasn’t sure of my wounds, thinking I had a deep cut in the back of my right thigh, and a severe cut on my left knee. I don’t remember whether I was fed painkillers, but I fell asleep quite quickly and quite soundly.

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33 thoughts on “Doom’s Day (4 February)

  1. Thank-you for sharing….x I’m interested in hearing more about your rehab and whether u received trauma counselling and how hard it was for you to return to school… Of course only if u wish. Take care and good on u x

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    1. Hi Sarah, keep reading, ‘therapy’ is a couple of days away… and the rest. I am happy to share; I am realising it actually is benefitting others 🙂

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  2. Elissa,
    I was a Smithfield SHS student (a year below) and knew Erica from her years there. I remember them calling us out into L-Block to tell us all and the grief displayed. I also remember my father coming home the next day and hugging my sister and I quite fiercely. Reading your story tells me a little of why he reacted like that. You see, he was the rescue crewman on the SES helicopter and was, in all likelihood, the man who gave you that hanky. Thank you for sharing that small part of my father who sadly passed away 11 years ago and never spoke of that day beyond giving us that hug.
    Brad

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    1. Brad, I can’t believe it, and am almost speechless. I just want you to know that you have given me a priceless gift just in this comment. I’m heartbroken for you that your dad never spoke of the day x

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      1. Xxxxxxxx and you my Judi double xxxxx. I’m glad we had each other, we helped each other through some tough times xxxxx

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  3. Thank you Elissa for ur words. I was in grade 10 CSH when u guys were seniors and i remember when we were told of the accident at school. My father worked at the CBH as a wards man on that day. I remember how weak he looked when he came home from work a look i never seen before. I dont remember him ever talking of it. I still cant beleive it was so long ago but the memories are still so clear. I cant begin to know how it felt for all that were there.

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    1. Thank you Scott for sharing your small snippet with me. I don’t feel like it was difficult for me because I was in shock for most of it.. for your father, for any rescuers, medical workers, anyone else involved I think it would have been much harder to bear. I am sorry your father never spoke of it either (like Brad’s dad, who actually had a role in this story)… it may have helped him & you to process the experience? You may have known my sister, Julia? She had just started in Yr 10 at CHS when it happened.

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  4. Every single time I put my primary school children on a bus for interschool sport or a school camp I think back to this time. I am so sad for those girls who never had the chance to become the mothers and middle-aged women we are today.

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    1. I have dealt with these kinds of thoughts by believing they weren’t meant to ‘stay here’ for that long: when people call them angels, I think they are right… they had served their ‘higher purpose’ (to impose life challenges/lessons upon the rest of u?) and were ‘required elsewhere’. x

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  5. Elissa, thank you for sharing. I will admit that I cried again reading this. My daughters Lorelle and Tonia spent a lot of time with Erica. I have so many beautiful photos of the girls with their horses, and the giggle sessions in the house after they had been to discos. Erica’s impersonation of Frank Spencer was a classic. I to this day smile when I hear him speak. Thank you again and I hope you are well

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    1. Oh I remember Lorelle! Please say hi for me. And thank you for reminding me of Erica’s amazing Frank impersonation too! I’m sorry you shed tears, but I’m sure we both know it was for a good reason x

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  6. Hi Elissa, I was very moved by your blog. I was in Yr 9 at Smithfield High School (same as Tonia Holz and her twin brother Garry, Lorelle’s sister and brother) when my close friend Fiona Fisher and her family were delivered the devastating news. I also remember congregating in L-Block where we told of the tragedy. My dear friend Fiona and her family have done their best to recover from losing their beloved son and brother, Mark, but I guess that the pain never actually goes away, it just becomes more bearable. I still get a lump in my throat whenever I think of that day or when I recall the turbulent years that followed for my 2nd family, The Fishers. Thank you for sharing your experience and we can all be confident that they’re all smiling down on us xx

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    1. The Fishers were our neighbours in Freshwater Tina… so I know a little of their suffering too 😦 Wendy was sitting next to my mum (& my best friend Monique’s mother was on the other side of her) when they called out their names and ushered them into a room to break the horrific news. Mum said no sooner than the door was shut, the wails & screams… oh I can’t, just can’t imagine it 😦 You are right – the pain will never pass: they say that no parent should have to bury their child. x

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  7. Hi Elissa,
    Your diary is beautiful, in all it’s honesty. Life is ups and downs and onwards. In your words you show your beautiful heart and soul.
    Thank you for sharing.
    Regards Michelle (nee Whitworth) Prince

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  8. Thanks Elissa for sharing your story. My family and I were in Cairns last Christmas and I spoke to them about the bus accident. I told them how if it wasn’t for the free bus service from Stratford to Smithfield (which almost didn’t happen) that I would have been at Cairns High instead. I told them that my friends were on the bus that crashed and that most likely I would have been on the same bus. I was good friends with Mark and would have probably been near him. I remember being on my bike in Freshwater that afternoon and the extremely painful ride back to Stratford. It is nice to see the familiar names your post has captured. All the best, John.

    P.S. I vaguely remember 1 or 2 people, perhaps you & Erica, changing from Smithfield to Cairns High that year (or the one before), because of the arts program there. Have I got that right?

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    1. Hi John, you are welcome and yes, I moved (with Astia Senario & Ingrid Kelder) to CHS in 1986 for the CAD art course. You would remember Fiona (nee Dunphy) too… she also started Yr 11 at CHS but not for the same reason as I. Erica had only started at CHS 3 days before the accident (if you see my previous posts on those days, you’ll note how excited I was that she was in a few of the same classes as me) I remember you from Smithfield, but did you go to Freshwater State School as well?

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      1. I was at Freshwater for grade 6 & 7. I think I only found out that I was going to Smithfield High the week before school started, up until then I was going to Cairns High. Yes I do remember Fiona.

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      2. Oh, maybe it’s Freshwater I remember you from then? If you moved from Cairns High over to Smithfield? Anyway, it’s nice to hear from you and I’m glad that my memoir has ‘helped’ you in some way 🙂

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      3. I was a 23 yr old nurse working in the hospital that night. Getting to work at 2:30 nurses walking around in gowns outside ED waiting for the ambulances to arrive. It was a very eery feeling.
        The Nurse Manager of ED , Denis, had just completed a Disaster plan for tragedies of this magnitude and did an excellent job.

        The nurses and doctors really banded together that night. No meal breaksjust,coffees on the run mixed with adrenalin got us thru and working well over 8 hrs. Nothing was too much to ask of the nurses and Drs. Supporting relatives right into the night. It was a privilege for us to do what we could for the families and the survivors in such tragic of circumstances. I was proud to be part of a well organised, professional disaster plan but also a very caring and compassionate plan as well. Well done Cairns Base Hospital ED Staff.

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      4. Thank you for your recollection Kerry. Although I wasn’t really ‘present’ during those first 24 hours, I know I was treated well and am forever grateful to all of the medical and emergency workers (including the unofficial helpers) involved.

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  9. Thank you Elissa for sharing your memories of that tragic day, I was in year 7 at Freshy primary and that day will always be etched in my mind forever, my older brother had been in a relationship with Liz prior to the accident and it changed his life forever, to the point where he never went back to school, my mum hearing the sirens and knowing something very bad had happened because the sirens just didn’t stop, to my dad who helped put Brett H on a flight to Brisbane for plastic surgery and coming home sobbing with blood on his shirt, then being at CSH a year later, when we all stood around the tree that was planted to remember the 8 young lives that were lost, sorry for the ramble.

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    1. Thank you for your (heart-rending) recollections Andrea. I’m so sorry for your brother: I hope he has processed it & ‘moved on’? Your dad, mum, …you? Its effects were just so far-reaching 😦

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  10. Thank you Elissa for sharing. You and everyone who was involved in the terrible tragedy are absolutely amazing people. I was a year above you at Freshwater State School before going to CSH. I do remember all of you well. Our thoughts and prayers will always be with all of you and everyone who was involved. Jeff

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    1. Hi Jeff, I remember you too. Thank you, but I personally don’t think I’m amazing: Life threw something (big) at me, and I had to deal with it.. no Choice involved, really. But I absolutely appreciate your thoughts & well-wishes x

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  11. I’m doing a school project on this day and you have just help me a lot with your words, it was a tragic event and who were the girls in the Picture

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    1. Thank you Maddy. I’m surprised you are doing a project on the accident? If you mean the group of girls in the tent, besides myself & two other friends, two of the girls that passed – Monique (front) and Erica (in the blue overalls).

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