Kellie Redenbach lost her father in the Cowper bus crash when she was just a toddler.
Kellie Redenbach lost her father in the Cowper bus crash when she was just a toddler.

The family Australia forgot after horrifying crash

In her ordinary life she's a postal worker, wife and mum of two. But through the difficult lens of Cowper, Kellie Redenbach has spent most of her life carrying the consequences of her father David Hutchins' actions; a truck driver's daughter who was not only robbed of her dad but a young girl that had to come to terms that his death was directly associated with the killing of 20 other innocent people.

Kellie was only two years old at the time of the Cowper crash and as she grew up was spared the specifics of the day that claimed her dad's life until teenage curiosity took her down a rabbit hole she would never fully emerge from.

She always knew her dad had died in a truck crash, but it wasn't until her mid-teens, she was confronted with the gravity of her father's actions.

"That's when I really sat down and read the newspaper articles and really tried to process it," Kellie said.

Her mother had anticipated this moment, preparing her daughter for this facet of their family life that had sat safely parallel while Kellie grew up. But she couldn't continue down that shielded path forever. Mrs Hutchins handed over a scrapbook to her young daughter, a warts and all journal printed about her father's death.

"She said this is yours. If you want to read it, you can. If you want to put it away and store it, it's completely your decision. If you want to talk about it, we will. If you don't want to talk about it, I respect your decision. Just know that I'm always here if you want to ask any questions. It took me a long time to read that."

As the clippings revealed the incident's minutiae often in uncomfortable journalist terms, the uneasy combination of family grief and guilty shame about what her father had done released a complex gamut of emotions. Kellie could see why a mother would keep those details at bay and when she learned more about the Cowper tragedy, struggled to talk to her mum about it.

"It was so confronting. I just couldn't believe that it had happened. It wasn't just dad had died anymore. As I've gotten older, had my own kids, I've talked to mum more about it."

Despite not being old enough to remember her father, Kellie has learned a lot about the man she still calls dad.

"Mum said he was a very big joker, very full of life. He loved a really good joke and was popular. My grandma would always say he'd tell you what he thought of you whether you liked it or not. He was very straight forward. He didn't have a filter between his brain and his mouth they told me. He would just say whatever came to his mind."

David Hutchins with his daughter Kellie a few months before he was killed in the Cowper bus crash on Friday, October 20, 1989.
David Hutchins with his daughter Kellie a few months before he was killed in the Cowper bus crash on Friday, October 20, 1989.

She said her father was already an established interstate truck driver when he met her mum.

"He met her when she was a waitress at a truck stop and they started dating a few weeks after that. Dad taught mum how to drive trucks. They both ended up being interstate truck drivers together."

According to the coronial inquest into the Cowper tragedy, her father David Hutchins had 80 times the amount of ephedrine that a chronic user might resort to stay awake and had crossed onto the wrong side of the road and into the path of a Sunliner coach killing himself and 20 coach passengers.

As she digested the media coverage as a young woman and tried to come to terms with her father's role in one of Australia's worst traffic crashes, Kellie began to feel the one-sided nature that often comes with the territory of finding fault and issuing blame.

Interviews conducted with her mother after her father died were taken of context. Big headlines shouted that her mother was glad he had died.

"They asked her a question about how dad would feel about all these people dying because of him, about causing their deaths. She said he would be glad he had died because he wouldn't be able to live with himself. If he had survived this accident he would not have coped because he would have blamed himself if it was his fault or not.

"It was very negative and he was the blame, but it was easy to blame him because he was dead. Mum and dad drove together for a long time. She said he wasn't reckless, wasn't a speed demon. He respected the truck and the way he was represented wasn't right."

Kellie said her dad had done drugs, "but that wasn't him". "He had been driving for a very long time and the story didn't just make him out to be (on drugs) it made all truck drivers out to be drug addicts and put everyone in the bad light. Mum said he was one of the best driver's she'd ever known."

David Hutchins
David Hutchins

Her mother also said at the time of Cowper the road was never brought into question.

"Mum said that (stretch of the) highway was very narrow, so much so at times mirrors could touch as two trucks or even buses would pass each other. Cowper had a very large drop-off on each side so if you accidentally drifted onto the side and dropped off onto the edge while passing another vehicle, overcorrection could cause you to go onto the other side of the road.

"She said dad always told her to be careful not to overcorrect. She really felt the roads board or whoever was in charge of them, needed to be brought into question back then."

Still, the defence of her father remains pitted with guilt.

"I did and probably still do have guilt for what had happened. Mum says, you know, it was never your father's fault. You shouldn't blame yourself, or blame him. (He was a product of the industry)."

If there was ever one person who could provide a little relieve Kellie of that feeling it was Angela Ormesher: the woman who lost six members of her family at Cowper.

Listen to Kellie's story in episode 5 of Cowper:

"When I met her at the 25th anniversary, (the first thing) she said was your father wasn't at fault. You know it was a freak accident. God has a plan for everybody… that made me feel… it was okay, to hurt, to be sad for dad. Because I always felt guilty for grieving for dad when he wasn't the only one who had died," she said, tears relaying the heavy emotional toil she still feels today.

"(Angela) made it clear that you know what? He lost his life too. You lost your father. And that's okay to be upset."

Kellie said her mother never questioned the trucking company nor the trucking industry about the working conditions or road safety. "It was never, a thing you did (back) then. They died on the job and that was sort of it.

"Today you know we'd be going after everybody and trying to find out, drilling right down to the bottom the root cause but mum said, (back then), you just accepted it. Mum was also grieving and had me (a two-year-old) and had just lost her husband."

Over the years, to help cope with the tragedy and that her father had been tarred as the villain, Kellie distanced herself from any reminders of Cowper until 2014.

"I realised 25 years (anniversary) was coming up and I wondered if there had been, if there was going to be anything held."

She had been told by one of her father's friends that there was a plaque at Cowper but she was unaware of anything like that.

"So I googled what I could and found out about the plaque and rang the local (Clarence Valley) council to ask if anything was going to be on. I think I found out that way. I think someone rang me back and said we're having this (memorial) on this date."

Kellie spoke to her husband and mother about attending, her mum, who had always tried to shield Kellie from Cowper, very reluctant about giving her the go ahead to attend.

"I said I really want to go and mum said I don't think you'll be accepted or wanted there. It might turn very bad. My husband said if you want to go, we'll go. I'll be there. We'll drive up, it's no problem."

Despite her mother's reservations, Kellie travelled to Cowper for the first time.

"I'm stubborn like my dad. I think I wanted to go for me just to say goodbye maybe. I just had that feeling I had to go. But I definitely took my mum's advice on board that I needed to keep quiet on who I was and not make a big show (about it). She said you're not the only one who's lost somebody, everyone there has lost somebody."

Driving up to Cowper was one of the hardest journeys the 32-year-old has ever made.

"We dropped my kids off then continued on. I think it took us a couple of days to get up there. And the whole time I'm going 'all right, yep, let's just go back. No, I don't need to go'. (My husband) would say 'no, we'll keep going'… I think he's more stubborn than me. He kept saying, no, we'll just keep going."

The couple arrived in Grafton the day before the anniversary and Kellie remembers how beautiful the place was.

"We'd never been there before so we had a good look around and also found out where we had to go tomorrow (for the service at Cowper).

"I was nervous as anything the night before. I hardly ate the next day and still thought I shouldn't go."

Kellie and her husband arrived at Cowper not long before the service started and stood to the side in an attempt to stay out of the main picture.

"I think the moment it started that was it; I just couldn't stop crying. I just cried my eyes out the whole time."

After the service, small cards were handed out to those present "to write on and put in the sand".

"I wrote 'rest in peace. I will always love you. Miss you, dad. I put it down in the sand and this man was filming the whole time. We were standing back watching others add their notes and he (cameraman) came up to me and asked if I knew anyone involved in the crash."

After a coy 'yes' Kellie was reluctant to elaborate but after being reassured by him she said "just between you and I, my dad was the truck driver."'

The cameraman, understandably shocked by that revelation and her presence there at the service after all this time, reassured her again.

"He said, no (don't hide) you've got to meet Angela. She's this lovely lady. I'm like, no, I don't want to meet her. This poor lady has lost most of her family because of this crash and my father was blamed for it."

After being convinced "not to think like that" and how "Angela would love to meet her", Kellie stood motionless until the words " Kellie, this is Angela" changed her world forever.

"She gave me the biggest hug and I just cried and cried. She whispered 'it's okay, darling. It's not your fault, you shouldn't feel guilty, it's okay'. She was so lovely.

"I finally felt I could breathe again."

Daily Catch-Up: January 19, 2021

Premium Content Daily Catch-Up: January 19, 2021

Today's local weather, funeral, and other notices in one place.

Accommodation offer to help fill hospitality job vacancies

Premium Content Accommodation offer to help fill hospitality job vacancies

A shortage of hospitality workers across the Clarence has seen temporary...

Clarence property boom reveals region’s winners and losers

Premium Content Clarence property boom reveals region’s winners and losers

Predictions of a post-highway bypass property downturn have been smashed as local...