'They called me a ghoul, they called me a b******'
IT took a lot of strength for Ian Thomson to come in The Daily Examiner office and talk about his experience at Cowper as part of the commemorative podcast, recalling the event that still conjures up unpleasant feelings three decades on, not just from the carnage he witnessed at the site but in the aftermath of doing his job, something that still grates on him today.
The veteran television reporter was a familiar face on Clarence Valley televisions screens covering local news and sport for many years before Cowper, but that day on October 20 is one that still holds a gamut of mixed emotions for the retired journalist.
He was the first TV reporter on the scene along with cameraman Mick O'Grady, who had called Thomson at his Coffs Harbour home at about 4.15am and said they'd been a "prang".
"I said, alright we better go and he picked me up and as we drove up to Cowper, past Grafton, we were just thinking, talking to ourselves about football or cricket, I don't remember; some sport, and we were treating it as if it were just another road accident."
Thomson said 2GF was on the air at that time, David Bancroft was the announcer and he kept updating as we drove along about the number of people dead. "I think he started with four, but quickly moved to 10 dead, and it just kept climbing. Mick and I realised then that this wasn't just another Pacific Highway road crash. We'd covered hundreds of them - but this was something tragic, something awful. And it was horrible."
Thomson said when they got to the site he remembered the long trail of cars leading them to the crash.
"Mick had to overtake about 100 stationary cars because the highway was blocked obviously. There was a bus on its side and a truck," he said recalling the visual image they were met with.
Thomson said an ambulance officer came straight to them and "was going to be our guide if you could believe it or not; he was going to show us around, perhaps, for want of a better phrase".
"He took us to the truck first which was smashed into a post and rail fence on the Eastern side of the Pacific Highway, and the door was open and the driver was still in the cabin. He was dead, but he was not a priority... he could wait."
He said the priority was the injured "22 of them - and when he took us, when the ambulance officer took us around to the bus itself, it was on its side and it looked... I described it in a Channel Nine interview later that day, it looked like a plane crash to me. You see plane crashes on the news from time to time and there were seats in the middle of the road. No one on them. No one on the seats. They were either dead or injured and taken to hospital."
Thomson said the ambulances kept coming and going. "The noise and, with the truck carrying pineapple juice, you could smell that but you could also smell death. I spoke to an ambulance about that and he said yes there is a definite smell to death and that's what it was like. It was all horrible. Absolutely horrible."
Thomson and his cameraman left the site and went to Grafton Base Hospital to talk to survivors.
"I thought that was quite normal (practice). We did it a few interviews and then we went back to the studios in Coffs Harbour."
Their work for the day was put to air that evening on NRTV.
"It was about a three-and-a-half to four-minute story with interviews etc."
As soon as it did, Thomson said "the phones started."
"There was no receptionist on the front desk to answer the phone but there was a recording device and these phone calls came from all over the Northern Rivers. And they were abusive. Every one of them was abusive. That a journalist would even go into a hospital let alone interview people about an accident. They called me a ghoul. They called me a bastard. And they called me names I won't mention here."
Thomson said he was shocked and gutted by the public response. "It really hurt me and I didn't say anything at the time or in the weeks and months after the crash. But I would like to now. I'd just like to say to those people who called: I asked those survivors if they would like to be interviewed or not. Some said no, some said yes, we'll give it a go. So we gave it a go."
He said that approach has not changed in his view. "Throughout the world with tragedies that survivors talk and sometimes psychiatrists will tell you that it is better to talk straight after an accident. You take the pressure off."
"So that was fine - they spoke - but I was still hurt by (the public backlash) so I'd like to put the record straight. It was me doing my job as a journalist and if I was still employed as a journalist today and not retired, I would do the same thing again."