Tuesday 18 January 1977 started as an ordinary working day in Sydney, Australia.
Then at 8:12 am, the 6:09 city-bound express commuter train from Mt Victoria in the Blue Mountains to Sydney – running three minutes late and with at least 469 passengers aboard – left the tracks and ploughed into the Bold Street overpass bridge at Granville, a Western Suburb of Sydney.
Seconds later, the impact of the collision caused 380 tonnes of reinforced concrete and girders from the bridge to collapse, crushing the train’s first four carriages. Many died where they sat in a space reduced to less than 50cm.
83 passengers lost their lives and 213 were injured in a disaster that was destined to leave lifelong physical and emotional scars for the rescued and rescuers alike. A young nurse, Margaret Warby, made her way back again and again into the wreckage to help survivors and was later awarded the Queen’s Gallantry Medal for her heroism that day.
The track upon which the train was running had a speed limit of 80 km/h and was in very poor condition due to lack of maintenance. Despite the actual speed of the train (78 km/h), It was this that caused the locomotive to derail.
At another point on the line, the derailment would have been nothing more than a minor incident as the train could have come to rest quite safely causing few, if any injuries.
It was very unfortunate that the train happened to be passing under a bridge. This was not a single-span construction, being supported, mid-point by concrete columns.
The two coaches immediately behind the engine were also derailed and the coupling between the first and second coaches parted. The locomotive continued to pull the first coach clear of the bridge, but the second coach, free of the authority of the engine moved increasingly off course and struck the central bridge supports.
It did so with such force as to dislodge them, bringing the roadway above crashing down onto the train.
Eight people were killed in the first carriage, which tore open as it hit a power stanchion. Everyone survived in the second carriage. The bridge, with four cars on its deck, teetered for a few seconds, then rained tonnes of concrete and steel on carriages three and four.
By 08:50, 1500 people lined the cutting. The crowd spilt onto the tracks. Some even disguised themselves as rescue workers and climbed onto the unstable bridge wreckage for a closer look, risking the lives of trapped passengers and their rescuers beneath.
Police were diverted from the rescue to control the crowd.
Doctors, nurses and police rescue crews crawled into tiny spaces to reach the injured, with rubble above likely to shift and further compress the carriages. In one instance, a police rescue officer was lying prone in a 35cm gap from floor to roof, clambering among victims’ bodies to get to an injured man.
A doctor had to amputate the arm of a dead woman to aid the rescuer but, without warning, a slab shifted above and compressed the carriage another 5cm, injuring the officer’s back.
Gas was leaking into the carriages, preventing the use of oxy-acetylene cutting equipment and power lines had to be cut one by one before cranes could begin lifting pieces of the collapsed bridge.
The stifling heat sapped the rescuers. Compressed air did little to ease the sweltering conditions. Emergency lights strung through the carriages added to the heat.
Seven trapped passengers suffered potentially lethal crush syndrome – in which potassium, acids and other toxins built up in a person’s trapped limbs can be released quickly once they’re freed, causing life-threatening heart, respiratory and kidney issues.
The last living person was freed around 18:15 but died later in hospital. The last body was extracted 31 hours after the crash.
Speculation about the cause of the accident focussed on the train driver and any possible error that he could have made. The subsequent inquiry completely exonerated him, but It was an extraordinary and very regrettable feature of this accident that despite his blamelessness, the driver, Edward Olencewicz received a number of threats to his life with accusations that he had caused the accident.
The inquiry headed by then NSW District Court chief judge, Justice James Staunton, revealed that the Bold Street bridge had been struck by derailments on the same section of track twice before – by a locomotive in 1967 and a loaded coal wagon in 1975.
The track there was in a “very unsatisfactory condition”, poorly fastened and badly aligned. The tracks had spread wider than standard gauge and on the morning of the crash, this caused the locomotive’s front left wheel to drop inside the track and sent it careering into the bridge supports.
Although most of those involved recovered with the help of caring family and friends, many surviving passengers and rescue workers developed significant mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress, and alcohol abuse following their experiences.
Almost inevitably, the Granville train disaster was eventually dramatised for television. The two-part Channel 10 miniseries The Day of the Roses (1998) followed two story arcs: the impossible conditions of rescuers, victims and survivors and the subsequent investigation by the Coroner.