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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The Anniversary of the Fall

A Life in Words
Mum enjoying a spot of sun in my courtyard, just 4 days before her fall

I know it was “meant to be”. And I couldn’t’ve prevented it because Mum was stubborn. It had happened before – a few times at home according to my sister – so was bound to happen again.

She wouldn’t ask for help. She wouldn’t wake her darling daughter, disrupt her sleep, just to go to the bathroom. That’s the kind of mother she was. Apart from being stubbornly ‘capable’ of finding her way to the toilet in the dark, under the influence of incredibly powerful painkillers and with numb feet thanks to the chemotherapy, she loved me way too much to break my much-needed slumber. You never wake up your babies (unless you absolutely have to).

It was a decent distance she had to travel between the bathroom and the couch she preferred as a bed. I’d realised as soon as she arrived that she would never make the flight of stairs to the bedrooms on a daily – or nightly – basis and also couldn’t get up from a mattress on the floor, so we made my generous three-seater her ‘station’. I slept on the mattress on the floor not 4 metres from her, for the sole purpose of being there for any help she needed during the night.

So all I heard was an almighty crash and a feeble wail. More like a pained, guttural exclamation. “Oh, oh, ohhhhhh”

“Mum? MUM?”

Panic & adrenaline flooded me in an instant, as I leapt up and I don’t even remember getting to the bathroom but I will never lose the mental image of her laying contorted in the shower recess.

She had almost made it to the toilet but lost her balance at the final moment, reaching out to her left for a wall, where there was none, and fell straight into the shower recess, over the ledge, smashing her head against the shower wall on the way down.

She lay in a contorted position, half foetal, sort of twitching in the struggle to get up and the moaning…. there were no words.

I can’t recall how I got her up, it wasn’t easy. I was trying to remain composed, but my panic momentarily exposed itself in the guise of a few whimpers and split-seconds of inaction driven by feelings of helplessness and overwhelm.

“Mum, oh mum”

She had soiled herself, naturally. She was after all trying to get to the bathroom for a reason.

Somehow, I did what had to be done. I don’t recall how, but I got her onto the toilet although she barely had the strength to sit up. She flopped forward, until I managed to get her to lean back against the toilet cistern. I cannot remember how I got her cleaned up and clothed in fresh garments but she recovered enough to answer my questions.

“Do you feel any pain?”

“No”

“Nowhere? How about your head?” There was an obvious egg by now.

“No”

This is what concerned, confused and later amazed me. She felt NO pain?

Getting her back to the couch wasn’t easy. I virtually had to carry her, although she must have regained an ounce of strength because I certainly didn’t get her there all on my own. Positioning her more upright, I fetched an icepack to put under her head, then set to work cleaning up the bathroom.

There was no return to slumber for me. Her breathing was laboured but I was more concerned about her head. That was, after all, exactly where some of her numerous tumours resided. I lay listening to her strange ‘snoring’ occasionally sitting up to look at her properly, for closer analysis. I was literally biding time until the clock struck a ‘decent’ hour at which I could ring my sister for advice. 6am. Mum was still sleeping while I spoke to Julia.

We decided it would be best to phone the Nurses Hotline.

There was no blood, she didn’t seem concussed (she knew where she was, who she was, who I was and what had happened) and again, amazingly, no pain. With the details of the (advanced) state of her cancer, and the fall, the nurse advised it might be best to try to get her to a hospital Outpatients. “Not a Medical Centre, but a hospital. Just to be on the safe side. The painkiller may be masking something that she’s not feeling so if you’re already at the hospital, they can act immediately.”

“I don’t think I can get her into the car, I barely got her back to the ‘bed’.”

Ambulance. So I dialled 000 and repeated the story, gave the same background information and answered roughly the same series of questions that the nurse had asked.

They arrived quietly. No siren needed. And in true Ambo form, they handled the situation beautifully, with calm, assured, professionalism and the perfect degree of humour. The story was related for the third time, and while they negotiated her into the ambulance, I collected some things I thought she might need, and was ready to follow them as they pulled away.A Life in Words

By the time we reached the Tweed Hospital, an ambo had administered oxygen to mum, making light of it. But this became the bigger issue. The young English doctor who finally examined mum was very nice but she was over waiting. She rolled her eyes at me when she thought he wasn’t looking. She had extra waits for tests to be run – XRays or CT scans I can’t recall which, but in the end, it was mum’s lungs he was concerned about: nothing to do with the actual fall.

We pretty much expected she would be kept in for observation at least one night. As long as she and I could catch our flight back to Cairns on the 22nd, it didn’t matter.

They found she had emboli (blood clots) on her lungs. Apparently this is a common occurrence with chemotherapy. I wasn’t sure what this meant. They were going to administer anticoagulant drugs to break up the emboli so there was still a chance we could get on our flight…after all, we had nine days?

It wasn’t to be. The emboli slowly disintegrated but it was the tumours that were wreaking the havoc ultimately. So when mum entered Tweed Hospital the morning of 13 December 2012, it would be her final place of residence; the locale of her final christmas and grandson’s 13th birthday. She departed just five days later.