'A good journalist wouldn't have gone as far as I did'
ROB Milne had been editor at The Daily Examiner for about 18 months when Cowper happened. It was his first appointment in the highly regarded role since beginning his career in journalism in the 70s. Arriving with his wife and two young children, they wasted no time in getting involved in the Grafton community, joining interest groups and enrolling kids in school.
Milne started his career as a cadet journalist at the Australian Associated Press and like many fledgling reporters of that period you learned on the job. It was the kind of unpredictable education you could never get in a university.
Milne was doing a shift early one morning in January in 1977 when news about train delays came across the wire.
"The railways kept updating saying the trains would be 10 minutes late, they'll be 20 minutes late. And it took a quarter of an hour before we realised just how bad the situation was."
Milne is talking about the Granville rail disaster, the worst of its kind in Australian history, the derailment and impact into a bridge killing 84 and injuring more than 200 passengers that day.
"Being a cadet, I was considered the last person to go out there, to cover it. We would have had half a dozen or more journos go straight out there while I stayed in the office to look after that end of things. To this day I'm eternally grateful that that's how it occurred. No such luxury at Grafton though."
Milne was asleep in bed when he got a call from a staffer at the Northern Star in Lismore.
"They had a photographer on staff who was a police radio junkie and he used to sleep with the police radio. He picked it up... some time after 4am from memory and called his chief of staff and she rang me.
"They didn't have full details obviously, they only had what they heard on the scanner and from memory it wasn't anywhere near the size of what it ended up being. They were looking at the number in maybe a dozen at the most as far as deaths (at around 4.30am), but it turned out to be a lot more than that."
Milne called Examiner photographer Bill Counsell before heading over to pick him up at his home and heading out to the scene.
"In those days obviously we didn't have smart phones or camera phones. Everywhere we went, reporters took photographers with them."
Milne estimates arriving at Cowper close to 5am, "a good hour or so after the crash."
"There was a police sergeant manning the road barricade that we knew, we knew quite well, so he let us through. It wouldn't happen today if you were trying to get to an accident like that, police would just say No which again in hindsight, it would have been nice if he hadn't let us in."
Milne said from the angle they travelled in from the south they could see the bus was on the left hand side of the road. "There was debris everywhere but the main scene was the truck which was on the other side of the road which, the front end had been demolished and these cans of pineapple juice all over the road."
That sickly sweet smell was the one abiding memory Milne said he has of the scene. "It was just kind of like the smell of death when we were there, it was dreadful."
The pair got out of the car and walked closer to the scene and the paddock adjacent to the river.
"That's where they had lined up the bodies that had already been recovered. They were all under blankets, I can't remember how many there were but there were more than we expected. And there were emergency service personnel some of whom were still retrieving remains from around the bus and placing them in body bags."
"A lot of emergency personnel could do nothing at that stage and I was struck by the way so many of them were standing there, obviously grief stricken and gobsmacked by this scene. I'm sure none of them had experienced before. It was just a dreadful scene."
The editor said he and his photographer spent about half an hour to an hour there. "There wasn't much we could do. People were not saying much so all I could do was just take notes on what I had seen, what the scene was like while Bill was taking photos of just about everything. Once he was finished we got back in the car and headed back to the office."
Milne said he was sure he was in shock "everybody at the scene was in shock."
"When I got back to Grafton, the office was snowed under with phone calls from mainly Sydney media and they are all asking for information and stories and quotes or whatever about the scene.
"Which I gave them. Or some of them at least. At the time I just described what I had seen and what happened but now looking back on it, I should never have said the things I said. I normally wouldn't have but I got myself into a situation where I was telling people exactly what I'd seen."
Milne said it soon became apparent things were going to turn ugly when they started getting calls from people who had heard him on Sydney radio.
"They were quite nasty, condemning me for sensationalising, the scene."
At the time Milne stood his ground telling them he hadn't been sensationalising the incident.
"I mean, looking back on it, things were said because that was the nature of the scene, I shouldn't have said what I said so I'm eternally sorry for doing those interviews.
"Certainly from my perspective these days, I wouldn't have said that. I still think that a good experienced journalist would not have gone as far as I did. I don't want to go there again."
Milne said his comments and coverage upset a lot of people. "Even the story that I ran in the paper the next day, what I'd seen, was also in hindsight too graphic."
Milne said he was preparing the backlash which reached a climax when the local Sisters of Mercy sent a letter condemning him.
But he said all of these memories of Cowper were "very selfish" ones. "It should be about the families of the victims, all of the first responders, all of the emergency service personnel who attended. This is not only a tragedy for those directly involved, but for Grafton and so many of those people who went to the scene."
He said he certainly wished he had got professional help after Cowper. "I know it was provided to all the state emergency services people, but as you say, media tend not to have access to that or are not considered to need any help. There were a couple of days after the event, the minister at St Matthew's on the South Side in the Anglican church, he actually rang me and asked if I wanted to come over and have a talk about it and I did. I took Bill with me as well. And that was good, speaking about it to him."
Milne said he doesn't like to think about Cowper for a lot of different reasons but when he is forced to it still conjures up strong feelings.
"I try not to think about it but it happened the day before my wedding anniversary...I just remember at the time we had the crash in Cowper, incredibly, two months later, there was an even worse one at Clybucca and suddenly the media caravan had moved on to that."