Mr CLAYTON BARR (Cessnock) (19:03): I have tried a couple of times to sit down and write this speech, and each time I sit down a bit of a fog comes through. So I have scratched out a few notes, but I am just going to have to tell the story, because it is a story that needs to be told and put on record in this place. I hope that nobody needs to revisit the story for many decades ahead, if ever. On Sunday 11 June at 11.30 p.m. we had a terrible, terrible accident in the Hunter Valley, on a roundabout at Greta above the Hunter Expressway. But I ask members to cast their minds to the hours leading up to that.
Sunday was an absolutely beautiful afternoon—just gorgeous, with barely a cloud in the sky or a breath of wind. Mitchell Gaffney and Madeleine Edsell had chosen Wandin Valley function centre and accommodation to have their wedding, to make a commitment of love for the rest of their lives. They had invited friends and family, as we all do. Many of them had flown interstate, which is a testament to the quality of these people and the love that they shared between their friendship groups. For about four or five hours, they had a wonderful afternoon, drinking and laughing, dancing and singing, having a fantastic time. Undoubtedly, during the course of an event like that, the staff who work the at the facility get to know the people as though they are family.
Sadly, at about 11.15 p.m., that joy, that moment and that event had to come to an end. Still with great festivity, a number of the attendees climbed on to a bus to go home. Buses are often organised at weddings to make sure that people get home safely. Wanting people to be able to let down their hair, to have a good time and to not have to worry about the journey home—being responsible about drink driving laws—are at the core of the wedding event in 2023. For some people, the bus route and where it is going to and from, suits their purpose. Other people find their own way home or stay closer—whatever the case is, they go about getting home themselves. The groom and bride did what many grooms and brides do: They took on the responsibility for making sure that some of their attendees got home safely by organising a bus. At 11.15 p.m. everyone climbed on. I am sure there was still plenty of singing and dancing. There might have been one or two last drinks on the way home.
You do not have to travel too far to get on the Hunter Expressway from Wandin Valley function centre. It is just a little bit along Lovedale Road, down Camp Road, through the main street of Greta. It is on the New England Highway. It is a quality road. It swings around, over the top of the Hunter Expressway and onto the expressway itself. Any of us who have travelled have gone along the motorways, freeways, highways and main roads, and we have seen the large circular roundabouts sitting above as we shoot underneath. Because of the direction that the bus was coming from on this occasion, it needed to go past the first and second exit and take the third exit. It was going three-quarters of the way around so that it could head off to Singleton. It got past the first exit and got past the second exit. Between the second and third exit, it fell onto its side and skidded along the road, up onto the gutter and eventually onto the Armco that protects the side of the road and keeps people in the road corridor.
At the time, emergency services and police responded incredibly quickly because they were somewhere in the vicinity. There was an ambulance that was on its way home from the John Hunter or Maitland hospital heading towards Muswellbrook, only a couple of minutes away. Another ambulance was on its way home from Maitland towards Cessnock, only a couple more minutes away. The call came out for the emergency services in the area, and they were on scene very quickly. During that time an ambulance inspector arrived on the scene and took charge. His name is Joel, and these are his early, harrowing words, which have been reported in the media:
Major incident declared. We have a bus rollover. Multiple patients.
The exact location is on Wine Country Drive overpass. We have police, fire brigade on scene.
At this stage we have identified seven, I repeat seven, code fours.
We have one red label patient whose injuries are severe and unfortunately we are expecting that he is also going to be a code four.
We have multiple red and orange label patients at this stage.
I need all resources allocated to continue. I am still trying to work out exactly how many patients I have here.
“I need all resources allocated”—that is at the heart of the call for help. And those emergency services turned up. They turned up aplenty, because in country and regional areas no‑one is ever exactly next door but they are next door enough to get there fairly quickly. Greta and Branxton are about 20 kilometres from Singleton, Maitland and Cessnock. We had all the emergency services deployed. They all got there quickly and were allocated different tasks. To the enormous credit of many senior emergency services workers, they made sure that the juniors were protected from the worst of it. There are a lot of trainee and intern paramedics at the moment because we are boosting our ranks. The old hard heads went into the worst of the fray and the trainees and the interns were given tasks around the fringes.
Branxton Fire and Rescue is also a first-response unit. It was there quickly, getting some airbags underneath the bus to lift it. There were passengers trapped underneath the bus. One of those is a survivor, and he survives thanks to their work. Of course, we needed to deploy the injured to many surrounding medical facilities—some by helicopter and some by ambulance. In fact, after we had utilised Maitland Hospital, the Mater hospital and John Hunter Hospital, we had to send some to the Royal Prince Alfred in Sydney by helicopter. At the other end of those frantic calls were our call centre workers, who were listening to the very worst of it. They were at the epicentre, despite being 50 kilometres away. Again, one of them was a trainee who was not long on the job.
The hospital workers were told to expect the worst. Emergency departments and waiting rooms were cleared. People were told to go home unless their case was incredibly urgent or critical because there had been a terrible accident and all resources were required immediately. Council workers and traffic control were quickly on site to secure the perimeter. Police did an incredible job assisting in that regard. Those workers are often overlooked but they were some of the first responders in this case. Back at the function centre and accommodation centre, they heard the worst. Babysitters were contacted and told that mum and dad would not be coming home. It is hard to fathom how many people are affected. I extend my condolences to all the workers who had anything to do with the event, either before or after. That extends to the bus company workforce, who have been exposed to this saga and tragedy just because of where they work.
By 5.30 a.m. on Monday 12 June the news had spread fairly widely. The cameras, the microphones and the media were turning up. They had an important job to do. The State needed to know what had happened. At that early stage of the day, no‑one locally even knew who was on the bus. We did not know whether they were locals. We did not know whether they were tourists who had come to town for the wedding. We did not know whether it was a mix of people. At that very early stage we did not know whether the bus was heading back to Cessnock or down to Maitland or up to Singleton. We all held our breath. Each hour on that first day a little more information trickled into the public domain. It was pretty clear around lunchtime that, while the tragedy occurred at Greta and in the electorate of Cessnock, the tragic consequences were also going to be felt in Singleton and in the electorate of Upper Hunter.
A little later in the day, the first flowers arrived. Locals who lived close to the crash scene, who did not know anyone on the bus, did not know the bride and groom and did not know anything about the wedding or the event, vicariously turned up with the first of the flowers. We were kept from the scene, 500 metres away, but the flowers and the tears arrived on site. The following day the scene was eventually released from police, crime investigations and road inspections, and a small shelter tent was set up by the Red Cross so that everyone had somewhere to take their flowers and have their particular moment. I spent a number of afternoons and days out there and many hours sitting, watching and talking. I wonder at the wonderful work of the Red Cross volunteers and the chaplain volunteers who have stood quietly and silently at the edge of that memorial, stepping in when they needed to step in and providing space when they needed to provide space. In some respects, the presence of the cameras kept some of those who needed to go there away, and, while I appreciate and respect the work that the media needed to do, in some instances, they hindered the ability of people to grieve.
Going forward from here there is, of course, the crash investigation, and we need to give time and space for that to come to our attention at some later date. We have a bus driver who has been charged with 11 charges. There is, as the police would say, evidence that he was driving in a manner that was not suitable to the conditions. There is no other way to put that. There was no reason for the bus to tip over if the bus driver had been driving suitably for the conditions. But, to the bus driver and his family: You did not think this was ever going to happen. The bus driver did not go to work that day and think this was going to happen, and his wife and kids never thought that their dad was going to be a part of something like this either. So, I extend my thoughts, condolences, concerns and care to all of you as a family as well.
We need to be guided by the victims and the families as to what we do next. Ultimately, I believe we will have a large memorial service for everyone and erect some type of memorial at the site—if the families want that. But we will not do it until they are ready, because this is their tragedy and their life, as we go forward from this moment, that they need to reconcile. I thank everybody from emergency services. I cannot put into words your courage and bravery. I thank all of the wellwishers, my colleagues, family and friends who have reached out to empathise with me as I empathise with the community widely and at large. I thank the Premier for making a number of journeys to the Hunter. I thank the member for the Upper Hunter for being so humble, gracious and strong in his service to the community. I thank all of the Ministers and departments of this State that have made it certain and unequivocal that they are ready to step in, assist, support and help wherever, however and whenever they need to—and that includes the time going forward.
Finally, I say to the families of the victims: The tragedy that none of you wanted has occurred now in our Hunter Valley, and whether you are from other parts of the State or interstate, your tragedy will be in our hearts, in our hands and in our care going forward. You are now a part of our community forever, and we extend our love and care to you.
Mr DAVID LAYZELL (Upper Hunter) (19:18): I thank the member for Cessnock. For someone who just scratched some notes together, that was a very moving contribution. Tonight I make two contributions to the motion of condolence for the Hunter Valley bus crash, the first being a statement from a representative of the survivors and the second being my own contribution. I start with a statement from Alex Tigani, who sent this through to me:
To the NSW State Parliament,
On behalf of the survivors of the tragic Hunter Valley bus crash I would like to thank everyone for the love and prayers throughout this past week.
The Hunter Valley has experienced unfathomable heartache after the horrific incident on Wine Country Drive which resulted in ten casualties.
This group featured community leaders, family men and women and hard-working contributors to the Singleton community.
More importantly, they were our family.
The Upper Hunter community has not been short of conflict in recent times.
This month marks four years since the tragic Brittliffe Close house fire which saw the loss of three young lives on June 26, 2019.
Since then, our resilient community has also endured bushfires, two COVID lockdowns and four major floods.
Once more, our first responders put their own lives at risk.
And once more, our community received the thoughts and prayers of concerned Australians around the world.
As victims we continue to ask for the privacy of our community to be respected as we collectively grieve and process the enormous loss and ask all Australians to keep spending time with their loved ones.
It is this time that matters most.
Alexander Edward Tigani
He signs off as a Singleton Roosters club member and Singleton resident—and, in my opinion, a damn good bloke. The past week has been difficult for so many, and yet the reality is this ordeal may not be over tomorrow, nor in weeks, nor in months. It will take time. What began as a joyous occasion, a wedding for Mitch and Maddie in the picturesque location of the Hunter Valley, turned to tragedy as the chartered coach returned guests from the wedding reception to Singleton.
Our emergency services responded to the crash on one of the Hunter region’s newest sections of road, a roundabout used by hundreds of motorists every day. I acknowledge every police officer, paramedic, doctor, firefighter, rescue helicopter pilot and crew member who took part in the recovery. The Hunter Valley Police District Facebook page provides us with an insight into the enormity of the resources required for the response on that Sunday night and Monday morning:
… officers from Hunter Valley Police District, Police Rescue, Traffic and Highway Patrol, NSW Ambulance paramedics, NSW Fire and Rescue, NSW Rural Fire Service, and various helicopters for hospital transports.
The NSW Ambulance Facebook page adds:
More than 60 paramedics and doctors attended the scene.
They treated and transferred 26 patients to hospitals in Newcastle, Maitland and Camperdown, and we thank them for their incredible work.
A huge thank you also to our call takers and dispatchers, and all those behind the scenes for coordinating the response.
Tragically, 10 guests were lost and many were injured emotionally and physically. The shockwave has flowed throughout the nation. The Singleton Roosters AFL club, the Hunter Valley coal industry, our local schools and the Hunter’s medical fraternity are just some of the sectors of the local community to be touched by the tragedy. Everyone knows someone who knows someone; everyone has been affected.
I have been in Singleton and Branxton over the past week with the community and there is nothing that can prepare one for a situation like this: a community that is heartbroken; people trying to comprehend the reality that some of their best and brightest are not coming home; the disbelief that a time of joy had turned to grief. I thank our Premier, Chris Minns, for the leadership and compassion he has shown to our community and to the State. I thank the ministerial team who have been absolutely outstanding in their support of our community. I thank my neighbouring MP Clayton Barr; local mayors, Cessnock mayor Jay Suvaal and Singleton mayor Sue Moore; all the MPs; and everyone who has sent their offers of support to our region.
It truly is the greatest honour to hold a position as the local member in New South Wales Parliament. We are welcomed to some of the most amazing community organisations, and we get to see some of the most committed local people to match. We are privileged to see how those great people can create more effective organisations. That is the basis our communities are built upon. I truly found that one of the most rewarding parts of the job. But this tragedy has opened my eyes to the fact that while we are there to share the good times, we are also there to shoulder the tough times. We share those times of hope and joy, but we share those times of heartbreak. We feel their sorrow. We share the disbelief and we share those same tears.
It is important that I share some of my own personal reflections of what this incident has meant. A month ago I was at an AFL match and I clearly remember Lynan Scott joking about being at the football and having the night off while Andrew had the kids. I am not sure of the backstory but she was free for the night. I have been playing over in my head how many times I have made that joke. How many times have we all made a joke like that? The difference is that those gorgeous little kids have now lost both their parents. I know they will always be loved. They will certainly always be considered part of the Roosters family; that is for sure because they are a strong club and a family club and they have always been so. They have welcomed people into that club from all over.
Nads McBride certainly made me feel welcome. It was the culture and an open-armed approach to create a family atmosphere. Nads was always willing to share a quick conversation and discuss her dream of the female amenities at the clubhouse. I remember Nads addressing a large group of female players after the game—not just her team. I remember seeing them all mixed in with one another. She was speaking to the whole group. She was talking about the match they played. I remember walking past and I thought, “Now there’s a leader.” We have certainly lost a great community leader, and we have lost many others who will not get the chance to live their full lives.
There are too many others who have been hurt in some way by this tragedy. I report that the Singleton Roosters club may be hurt and heartbroken but it is in good hands through the leadership of Alex Tigani; club president Dylan Hickson; and the entire Singleton Roosters committee, Jackson, Mel, Sarah, Paul, Scott and others who are involved. They have all shown incredible courage throughout this time. They have stepped up as leaders of our community. I think, going forward, they will lead us through a path of healing. I think the whole town is now gathered around them. I thank them for their strength in a time of crisis.
For a region that loves sport, it is only right that people show their love and support through actions on the fiends and courts throughout the Hunter Valley. Last weekend the sporting codes all responded in many ways. As the local member, I am incredibly proud of their response. They have had minutes of silence as a mark of respect, and black armbands. The No. 10 jersey has been retired from the field to represent the 10 victims. It was truly special to see the local rugby club, the Singleton Bulls, inviting their compatriots, the Singleton Roosters AFL club, into the dressing sheds after the match to sing the Roosters club song together, arm in arm. It is one of those moments that raises the hairs on the back of your neck. It was very special.
As we go forward as a community, we will get through this tragedy. It is going to hurt and it is going to take time, but it is important to know that we in this place are here to support those who have been affected, whether they come from the Hunter Valley or Victoria. Wherever they come from, our hearts go out to them. Anything we can do, we will do to help them.
We will always be thankful to the men and women who work as first responders. We will do everything we can to support those who have survived and who will need our help. We will never forget those whom we have lost. May they rest in peace.