Cowper bus crash Bill Counsell
Cowper bus crash Bill Counsell Jenna Thompson

DEX Photographer shares darkest day of his career

BILL Counsell was a photographer for The Daily Examiner in 1989 and captured the definitive image from the Cowper tragedy - a row of bodies lined up in a paddock, covered in blankets, the bare feet of one victim poking out, a grimly casual detail that encapsulated the overwhelming loss of life that morning.

A couple of hours earlier Counsell was sound asleep until a bang on the door woke him before dawn.

It was his editor Rob Milne "who said something like there's a big bus crash, let's go" before the bleary-eyed photographer jumped in the car. Half an hour later the pair were at the crash site, an awakening Counsell still recalls vividly three decades later.

"The first thing I saw was just mess and debris scattered all along the highway, probably over about a 150-metre stretch. It seemed to be fairly mild where we pulled up but as we got closer to the epicentre I guess you'd call it, it got greater," he said.

"There was just debris, there was a truck-load of Golden Circle pineapple juice spilled everywhere so everything was sticky underfoot, and a sickly-sweet smell in the air. Bits and pieces of vehicles. Bits and pieces of bodies, just a hell of a mess. It was probably something that looked like a war zone."

Counsell said despite the surreal nature of the crash, he felt he had some idea of what to expect.

"I'd covered quite a few fatal prangs and I knew this was something similar but on a larger scale. I had no problems (preparing mentally). I do recall at the time walking around taking photos and seeing things and just thinking to myself, gee I hope I don't know anybody here. Any of these victims. You know I hope I'm not directly involved with it in any way that I don't have family or a family member or a friend amongst them."

The reason Counsell was able to remove himself, to some extent, from the horror around him was his own personal trauma he experienced as a young boy, the photographer witnessing the death of his father in car crash when he was 11.

"Standing on the side of the road in the rain in the dark with 18 broken bones, looking at my father who was torn apart, you know, so going to Cowper 10 years later, it sort of didn't phase me really."

He said he went about his task robotically but professionally, "I knew I had a job to do and I knew I had to come up with a certain number of photos to keep the paper happy so I went about doing that. It was pretty difficult but I just sort of tried to keep my emotions out of it."

Counsell said The Daily Examiner was the first media outlet to arrive that morning "it was just all the services: police, ambulance, firies, SES. Maybe like 50 of them all up."

He sensed no one there had seen anything on the scale of Cowper before "but they looked like they were doing a pretty good job. Staying sort of upright. Not keeling over."

He remembered lots of people (metropolitan media) asking him lots of questions so he just told them what he saw.

"I got back (to the office) and into the dark room and probably spent two hours there and pumped out those photos and my job was done. I took all the photos upstairs and gave them to the boss and that was my day basically.

"I think I spent the rest of it in a cloudy, fog-like haze."

The photographer said he went to see a pastor with editor Rob Milne a couple of weeks later for some counselling but "that was it".

"I think I fared a lot better than most people. I'd already survived two fatal prangs previously so I sort of was a little bit immune with this bus crash. (My own experience) helped me personally manage it all and be more prepared for it."

Besides his personal tragedy, Counsell says Cowper was still one of the darkest days of his life.

"It's a good thing that a lot of people don't have to see stuff like that.

"You go to something like that and visually you see a lot of things. I mean the photos (I took) were one thing, but what you see other than the photos is a lot worse. There was a lot of stuff you just can't photograph. It's stuff that once you've seen it, it can't be unseen. And you know, thankfully a lot of people that aren't me don't have to see those things, they can just read the milder version of it in the newspaper."

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