'I was happy to help': Young SES worker on the frontline

AMONG the group of uniformed men peering under a coach as it is winched from the side of the Pacific Highway is a young man dressed in an SES uniform, doing a final check for victims.

You can barely distinguish him in the group, but to Phil Whitby the photo is the only evidence he helped that day.

"That was one of the last jobs I had to do, and there was thankfully nobody anywhere else under there."

Aged 22, Phil was one of the youngest first responders to attend the Cowper bus crash. He wasn't trained for it and while he knows he shouldn't have been there he counts himself as lucky to have had the chance to help.

In 1989, Phil's father-in-law Barry Essex was the Maclean SES controller and got Phil involved in helping out with communication and other tasks where he could, but he never joined the rescue squad or completed the required training.

1989 Bus Crash, Pacific Highway, Cowper, Grafton 3
1989 Bus Crash, Pacific Highway, Cowper, Grafton 3

In the early hours of October 20, the farmer should have risen early to begin cane planting, but a call from Barry changed his plans.

"Our pagers went off and Barry usually rang as well," Phil said.

"He said don't break a leg getting there, Phil, a bus has run off into a paddock."

"Nobody knew there was a truck from our point of view for a while after. It was a couple of hundred metres up and we came from the northern end."

Phil parked about 50 metres away, knowing a crash required space and  walked up to the scene in dim morning light, a sticky feeling hung in the warm air after rain had cleared away.

"It wasn't chaos. It was quiet, organised."

"I went up to the bus, it was still dark, you couldn't see anything. A couple of the guys were already in there," he said.
"Standing right in front of the bus looking in, it's a picture of just black tangled mess, you still didn't see too far in. It wasn't that well illuminated."

There was a sense of calm as paramedics, police and SES methodically worked through the carnage before them.

Phil attributes it to the experience of the women and men who were first on the scene in triaging patients, among them Maclean paramedic Ian Algie who had attended the Granville train disaster in 1977.

"For them to be there created what seemed to be a sense of just quietly doing. It wasn't pandemonium and mayhem and screaming," he said.

Phil had prepared himself to enter the bus, joining the paramedics already pulling victims out but was quickly called away by Ian.

"They freed Bill the bus driver at some point of taking people out."

"Ian grabbed me at that point and said, 'Phil I need you here to help me work on Bill'."

"We laid him out, he wasn't looking too pretty, poor Bill. Ian said to me 'Phil, can you find a pulse'."

"I couldn't literally find one on him it was so weak at the time."

As Phil hoped to feel even a faint pulse, Ian had got to work all the while directing the young volunteer.

Phil sat and pumped two bags of haemocell, a replacement for blood that helped patients hold on until they could get to hospital.

Bill the bus driver, whose name is William Bergen, was loaded into an ambulance and Phil shuffled off to the next task.

The timeline is skewed in Phil's memory, he can't recall what took 10 minutes or an hour but as the sun rose he helped move and load patients, rushed an ambulance to Grafton Base Hospital, collected victims' luggage for police and took a final sweep of the site, looking for the last victims.

"Any person could've done what I did, I was just wearing an orange suit that day," he said.

"I did no more than anyone else, less than a lot. I shouldn't use the word lucky, but I was happy to help."

Phil was proud to be among the first responders who worked tirelessly and diligently in the most adverse conditions, and while he downplays his own role in it, he counts that picture with him barely visible in the corner as an important reminder that he had a role in one of Australia's worst road disasters.

"What I've learnt is that there aren't just 100 threads, there could 5000 threads to tell and capture a story," he said.

I used to think of myself as a cog in the process, but I think I'm barely a tooth on a cog in a process."

Maclean SES workers Phil Whitby and Barry Essex.
Phil Whitby with former Maclean SES Controller Barry Essex at the 30th anniversary of the Cowper bus crash. Jarrard Potter

And 30 years later, Phil lives south of Byron Bay and has a daughter. While he doesn't volunteer with the SES any more, he learnt valuable lessons from the experiences he had in it.

"One thing I've learnt, I talk a lot because it doesn't help to hold things in," he said.

"I think I've become that way, because of all the things I've gone through in my life. I was always the last to finish food at a table because I like talking."

After three decades, there is still one thing Phil would love to do - say hello to Bill the bus driver, the man he played a small part in saving and until recently he believed to be dead.