COWPER: Radio journalist recalls ruthless national media

CLARENCE born and bred David Bancroft was news editor of popular local radio station 2GF at time of collison. He remembered getting a phone call from morning announcer Paul Covington just before 4am telling him "there'd been this bad crash at Cowper" and he needed to come straight into work.

"Paul had gone into the studio early and must have received something from police about a highway block or something like that," Bancroft recalls.

He said he immediately called the police, "actually I might have even called in to see the police on my way into work" as there were no mobile phones. At that stage he was told there were probably five or six people killed.

"It was was tragic so I kept going backwards and forwards between the studio and the police station. Most of time I was just camped outside of the police station because it was best placed for me to get up-to-date information in a flash and I couldn't broadcast from the field. At that point in the morning we had no outside broadcast facilities."

Bancroft said as he kept in contact with police that morning he could see from their faces that they were "pretty messed up."

After his 7.30am news bulletin that morning Bancroft had the chance to go down to the site of the crash at Cowper.

"It was pretty horrendous. I won't go into a lot of detail because it was pretty grim, but I remember being there and watching the head of the highway patrol at the time, Lloyd Hampson. He was there and I'd had a lot of dealings with Lloyd in the past and as head of Highway Patrol he had been to multiple crashes all over the place. I had (and still do) a lot of time for him.

"He just had this blank look on his face. He was just lost almost and I remember seeing him when I first got there. (In those days) we used to have these flip photo albums where you had this A5 size where you flipped pages. He had one in his hand and it was blood-stained photo album of somebody's family. I don't know how many hours I was there, but he had that in his hand the whole time, completely unaware, I think, that it was there."

Bancroft recalled the police head going about his work "as did all of the emergency services."

"They were almost programmed to go about and do what they had to do. But the level of shock you could see in them and loss they must have felt at the time was just immense."

Bancroft said when he got there at 8am he was the only person from the media there (the Daily Examiner had left at that stage) and he immediately went and started interviewing people.

"I think the first person I went to see was the person who reported the crash. He (Alan Bowling) was in the house next door.

Bancroft said throughout the morning, different media arrived.

"I counted seven helicopters from various news crews there at different times. So there was intense media interest. Probably emergency services were there for a long time until after lunchtime sometime. There were a few politicians starting to arrive. The Deputy Premier, I think Wal Murray, and the Roads Minister at the time would have been Bruce Baird. There were no local MPs (Ian Causley and Ian Robinson) at that site from memory."

Bancroft said the metropolitan media bombardment throughout the day was "just non-stop".

"It was worse than frustrating. It was incredibly annoying. The first question was 'how many are dead now?' and it was really starting to grate on me. It was just, it was like a scoreboard. And it was. I was probably a little rude to a few of them. I told them in short shrift that these were people's families and we're not counting numbers. I don't think they agreed with that so they started ringing our technicians and others to try and get the same sort of tally and they gave them the same short shrift."

Bancroft said he received no professional counselling after covering Cowper although people did reach out to him. " The only offer was from Lindsay McLaughlin, I think he was from the Uniting Church. He rang just to see how I was. That was probably a week later but I didn't talk to him."

"I met up that night with Rob (Milne editor of Daily Examiner and friend) and we sort of gave each other a bit of a debrief. We probably weren't the best of company towards each other at that time. We were both pretty shattered."

Bancroft said there was no real process he knew of in helping people with the aftermath of Cowper.

"I don't think any of the emergency service workers received any counselling, or the police. And I know a lot of them have got huge scars from it. Huge scars. Worn forever including some of the media that were there."

He said at the time he didn't think media would normally be allowed go into an accident site like Cowper, "but there was such intense pressure on those emergency services and police to get whatever, to get people out, the survivors out. They weren't really interested in what else was going on; they were just there to save lives.

There were roadblocks up to stop traffic because obviously the highway was blocked, but they had no interest in stopping us because we weren't interfering with what they were doing."

Bancroft said when he spoke to Wal Murray and Bruce Baird at the time and asked about the condition of the highway.

"They said the road, the highway was not to blame. It wasn't the greatest highway, but that wasn't the cause of the accident. (The dual carriageway that was installed after Cowper is still not where the accident occurred). But I asked them about it and pretty much said the road conditions are okay and that is was drugs and fatigue."

The other thing Bancroft asked the politicians about was compulsory seat belts in buses.

"This is still not happening and it wouldn't have helped everybody (on the bus) because the whole side was ripped out. But there was the impact. This would have been so huge that people on the other side of the bus were thrown everywhere. Had they been in seat belts their injuries would have been a lot less severe. They would have made a hell of a difference..."

Like many who attend the scene one of the powerful and lingering memories of Cowper was the smell.

"It was pineapple, diesel and fear. I've worked around animals a lot growing up on a farm and when animals are scared, they emit a smell. And there it was.. it was just overpowering. And I still smell it when I go past. It's still there."

One of Bancroft's strangest memories of the time occurred the next morning.

"I don't know whether that's a weird thing but it was just getting on daylight and I walked past Grafton Travel where it used to be (where Hanks Bakery is) and there were people I recognised from that bus, waiting to catch another bus."

More recently there was the 25th anniversary where Bancroft went and revisited the site for a memorial service where he witnessed a powerful sight.

"Angela Ormesher had lost seven members of her family in that crash and she met the daughter of the truck driver and said 'I don't blame you, and I don't blame the driver' and they just hugged."

Bancroft said he thinks about the crash every time he drives past the site that has made him a "much more careful driver".

His media coverage of Cowper won him a national radio award but it was a "guilty" accolade because he "just had to be there to tell the story."

"I haven't listened to it for a long time but there was nothing special about the reporting of it. My normal bulletins went for four and a half minutes, but I think that one went for over eight (a long time in radio for one news item)."

He said when he heard himself again years later he could tell he was almost in tears trying to read the report.

"Probably not considered particularly professional but it was unavoidable."

"The media's role in (something like Cowper) is difficult. They have the responsibility to report these things and to shock. Because by shocking people you can get them to recognise that there are really dire consequences from doing inappropriate things on roads. It's a really important message for the media to get across.

"It is sometimes really difficult and to do that in a way that doesn't offend, so it's a very tight line. I don't think media always gets it right. Probably doesn't get it right most times. But it is something, from all my media experience, they always try to balance.

"When you have to go out and speak (live) to people who were there and go and get opinions from people while they're there. And they are obviously not at their best at that time. But to give all those people there that I spoke to that day credit, they were all willingly gave their time, they were all open and honest, and I think that helped portray the picture without becoming too gruesome."