Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Urunga nightmare

Three months ago, I wrote a blog article titled In the early hours of an Australian Morning [display] about a fatal accident in which two people were killed on the Pacific Highway at Urunga in northern New South Wales. Like many observers, I had imagined immediately that the underlying blame for this terrible collision was no doubt the deplorable state of the Pacific Highway at Urunga. Everybody seems to agree that major investments would be required to transform the present road into a modern highway, safe for all categories of road users including drivers of giant trucks of the B-double category. And safe, too, for people who live alongside the highway.

Today, in the wake of that terrible night of Saturday, 7 January 2012—terminating at 5 am on Sunday, 8 January 2012—only the empty shells of the tragedy are visible. Here are the remains of the house in which 11-year-old Max McGregor died.

Max, from South Penrith, had been staying there with his parents in their holiday home, accompanied by his 14-year-old brother Bruce, who miraculously survived the disaster.

PHOTOS The above two photos of the destroyed house were taken by Frank Redward.

On January 27, a Urunga resident named Kath Black sent a comment to my blog:
That was our family home. My Dad and Mum moved there in 1937 and stayed there until Dad built the house next door and the granny flat behind. When we were kids, we would play cricket on that road, as there was not much traffic. My nephew owns it now, but the government has not kept up with the amount of traffic that travels that road.
In other words, Kath Black seems to suggest that, in the context of the terrible Urunga accident, the state of the highway was one of the factors at fault.

Here is the carcass of the blue Holden Commodore 1999-model utility vehicle, driven by 38-year-old David Levett from nearby Nambucca Heads:

The driver couldn't get out of that mess alive... and he didn't. But how come that he apparently steered his lethal way wildly, almost with determination, on the wrong side of the road, straight between the front wheels of an approaching B-double?

PHOTOS The above two photos of the blue ute were taken by Frank Redward.

In the case of a tragedy of this kind, before jumping to conclusions, one needs to reconstruct a representation of what actually happened. And a major witness of the terrible final instants of the catastrophe is a miraculous survivor: Trevor, the 51-year-old Queenslander at the wheel of a 2002-model Kenworth prime mover with a B-double trailer full of bananas. That night, Trevor was accompanied by a co-driver, his 31-year old Townsville nephew Tim.

Trevor was no newcomer to the B-double business: he has been driving heavy vehicles for three decades. On the eve of that fateful night, he had been completing his first four hours of driving with a new employer, and the load was 70 tons of bananas.

At around 8.30 pm, that Saturday evening, after picking up Trevor for his first run in the new job, Tim took the B-double out of Toowoomba. Their destination was the south: Sydney. Two hours later, in the vicinity of Dinmore, at the level of Ipswich, Trevor took the wheel. Four hours later, around 2.30 on the morning of January 8, they halted for a 45-minute break at a place I know well: Halfway Creek. (In the vicinity of my unique childhood mountain, Glenugie, Halfway Creek got its dull name because it was located midway between Grafton and the beach town of Woolgoolga.) After a snack and coffee, Trevor checked the tires and lights of his giant vehicle, then he drove off, while Tim crawled into the bunk, to sleep.

Just before entering Urunga, Trevor would have crossed the Kalang River at a picturesque place (whose natural beauty is surely enhanced in the twilight of a summer dawn) where the road and rail bridges run parallel to each other. In the following Google Maps rendition of that place, facing south, you must readjust your vision to allow for the fact that Trevor's B-double was being driven southwards on the left-hand side of the road, whereas the Google vehicle from which this image was taken was obviously moving in a northwards direction.

This crossing has always caught my attention for a roundabout reason. Up in my native town of Grafton, they chose a quite different solution. Road and rail traffic cross the great Clarence River on a curious two-storied bridge.

But I'm digressing. It goes without saying that B-double vehicles could never use the bridge at Grafton to cross the Clarence (maybe a blessing?) for the simple reason that it incorporates a pair of amazing road-traffic bends based upon the geometrical fact that trains can't normally be expected to turn corners, whereas motor vehicles can !

Driving through Urunga, Trevor recalled a slight incline ending in a bend to the left, where he changed gears in order to maintain his speed. I would imagine that the following Google Maps image provides us with a daylight version of Trevor's vision at that crucial moment:

At that point, at 5 o'clock in the morning, Trevor was suddenly hurled into what might be called a nightmare vision. While changing gears, he saw a dark blue utility coming towards him in the north-bound lane (on the right of the above image). When this utility vehicle was about 30 meters away from him, Trevor discovered with stupor that the driver suddenly turned to his right, straight into the path of Trevor's prime mover.

Today, in his memory of those fatal instants, Trevor recalls the utility vehicle on a direct collision course with Trevor's B-double. There was no avoidance on the part of the ute driver or slowing in speed. His vehicle impacted violently with the front of the prime mover, sending the truck on a direct line towards the houses and the people inside.

Trevor was not wearing a seat belt. In fact, many truck drivers prefer not to wear seat belts, saying: "You never know when you might need to get out of the cabin in a hurry." Today, Trevor can claim that he owes his life to the fact that he wasn't belted into his seat, since he was thrown from the driver's seat and out of the way of the timber and other debris crashing in through the driver's window of the cabin. However Trevor's pierced lung and broken ribs meant that he had to spend a week in the intensive care and surgical wards of Coffs Harbour Hospital. Today, he would appear to be recovering his spirits, while awaiting inspiration on how he and his wife Heather might possibly recover—psychologically and professionally—from this accident.

A minor anecdote caught my attention, and moved me concerning the ethical attitudes of this country truck driver who will inevitably live the rest of his life in the shadow of those two individuals who died suddenly in the early hours of an Australian morning. Trevor recalls his anguish, while being bounced about as the prime mover hurtled madly on its uncontrollable path of destruction, by his inability to reach down and access the emergency brakes for the trailers, located in a lower region of the cabin. In the days that followed the accident, Trevor said to himself constantly that, if only he had been able to get at those brakes, he might have been able to avoid the catastrophe. Finally, after technical inspection of the wrecked prime mover, experts told Trevor that the shock of the utility's impact had in fact broken the front axle of the prime mover, and pushed it back some 25 cm, where it cut through the B-double's system of hydraulic lines. So, even if Trevor had succeeded in reaching the emergency brakes, they would have been totally inoperable.

Political decisions will now be made concerning the advantages and possibility of investing in a costly bypass of Urunga. To an outside observer, the sense of this bypass theme is not obvious. At present, the Pacific Highway does not appear to go through the center of Urunga, as can be seen in the following map:

A month after the crash, it was revealed that the driver of the utility vehicle was nearly 5 times over the legal BAC limit [Blood Alcohol Content]. Police said that the amount was 0.245 over the Australian limit of 0.05. This means the driver would have consumed approximately 30 standard drinks before getting into his vehicle and driving off into the night.

Conclusion: In the case of calamities of this kind, the real culprits are surely certain drivers.

RIP Max McGregor and David Levett 

ADDENDUM: Basic information concerning this accident has appeared in an excellent local newspaper:

Click here for a short moving statement, published in that newspaper ten days after the accident, from Trevor's wife Heather.

BREAKING NEWS (January 11, 2013): Click here to access a fine article in The Sydney Morning Herald concerning the aftermath of this tragedy.


  1. The Older BrotherJuly 23, 2012 at 11:10 AM

    Your wrong, max died in the granny flat at the back. The truck was speeding. The ute druver was five times the legal limit.

  2. I thank you for these comments. Since they are almost identical, should I delete one of them? It appears that I was mistaken in assuming that Max was sleeping in the main house. For the moment, however, I've left my original text as it was, so that it reflects my early impressions (obtained by reading media accounts of the accident). It goes without saying that I would welcome recent information and comments concerning this terrible accident.

  3. A toxicology expert testified that the marijuana residues in the truck driver's body would have not influenced his ability to drive the truck.
    Since I have fund out that he pleaded guilty to having a prohibited drug in his system, I have wondered when did he use the marijuana, was he in the habit of using marijuana when he was driving, and had the other driver of the truck also used marijuana.

  4. John May: Thanks for your comment. Insofar as I had made no attempt to follow up this tragic affair (primarily since I'm living on the other side of the planet), I was totally unaware of the marijuana dimension that you've evoked. So, I'm a little surprised.

    I'm not sure that my humble Antipodean blog might or should continue to express meaningful viewpoints on this tragedy and its aftermath. Having said this, I hasten to confirm that my Antipodes blog remains a forum for readers (particularly in this election period) who are disgusted by the appalling state of the Pacific Highway.

    The real culprits behind Australia's lousy infrastructure are the mining capitalists who continue to milk the wide brown land of its non-renewable guts, pocketing astronomic amounts of cash (for no logical reasons or merits) without giving back a copper cent for the development of Australia's infrastructure and for the betterment of the life of Australians. Why doesn't Australia wake up? Will the tragedy of the Great Barrier Reef make citizens know what's happening?

    The only solution to this stalemate, I believe profoundly, would be a bloody revolution. To my mind, the disgusting filthy-rich mining capitalists should be targeted (metaphorically speaking) and shot on sight.