WE?RE LUCKY TO BE ALIVE
By ZOE SATHERLEY
ONE minute Ballina High School student Jack Blatchly was on the bus, laughing with friends. The next, he had his face smashed against the back of the seat in front.
The Year 9 student yesterday said he and his schoolmates were lucky to survive Monday's horror bus crash which claimed four lives and left many injured.
Ballina High relieving principal Errol Ussher said the school had set up immediate and long-term counselling services for students and staff.
The crash happened on a notorious 'death trap' section of the Pacific Highway at Bonville, south of Coffs Harbour, when a Toyota Tarago collided head-on with the chartered bus, which was returning students back to school after their AFL under15s football match with Bellingen High.
"It all happened so fast. I heard the bus driver yell out a warning and then there was a screech and a gigantic bang," Jack said.
"I wasn't wearing a seat belt and, like lots of the others, I was thrown about.
"I hurt my neck, bruised my knee and got a cut on my mouth.
"I had the seat to myself and turned around to check on my mates sitting behind me.
"One seemed knocked out. He had blood coming from his nose and mouth. Everyone seemed dazed and confused.
"I don't think many of the kids were wearing a seat belt. It was pretty slack of us but you don't ever think something like this will happen.
"I remember seeing the 'fasten your seat belt sign' lit up but I didn't pay it much attention."
Jack said he was the first person to get off the bus.
He ran around the front to see the damage and was shocked to see a man's body trapped in the mangled wreckage.
"It was pretty gruesome. You couldn't tell if he had been in the front or the back of the car because it was all squashed up.
"I didn't want to look at it so I went and sat on the grass with the other kids who were by now getting off the bus.
"A lot were bleeding and limping. Most had hit the seat in front of them.
"We didn't talk about it much. I think we were all in shock. The boys didn't cry or hug each other like a bus-
load of girls might have done. They were all pretty quiet.
"Later, on the bus trip home, once we had gotten over the initial shock, we all started talking about it and saying how lucky we all were to be alive and to only have minor injuries.
"We got on that bus home and the first thing we all looked for was seat belts, but there weren't any which made us feel a bit nervous."
Jack's mother, Kaylene Blatchly, said she was grateful for the way all those involved in the aftermath of the accident had helped and supported the children.
But Kaylene believes the students should all have been firmly instructed to wear their seat belts.
"If the bus had them, the kids should have been wearing them," she said.
"They were very, very lucky, but it is an important lesson for others to learn. When you are taking kids on school bus excursions, check they are wearing their seat belts. A major tragedy could have happened and we could have lost the lives of our precious children."
Kaylene said the accident once again highlighted the desperate and urgent need for the Pacific Highway upgrade.