TWENTY-seven year-old Alan Bowling had been living at his relatively peaceful rural property for a couple of years before it was thrust under the national spotlight.

Five acres of alluvial floodplain, the painter by trade, he ran a small farm when he wasn't up a ladder brightening up people's homes.

Nothing much has changed on the work front for the now 57-year-old when, covered with evidence of the day's brushwork when he came into the office for a chat after agreeing to be a part of The Daily Examiner's special podcast to commemorate and reflect upon the Cowper tragedy 30 years on.

It's the first time Alan has spoken to the media since it happened, his original encounter with the press holding mixed emotions for the first person on the scene on that cool, spring morning in 1989. "I wasn't sure whether I wanted to talk to the media again."

Even for a farmer it was early. Four o'clock in the morning when he said he heard the noise.

That was the sound of metal tearing through metal, Alan yet to know that when he got of bed to see what the commotion was about.

"It was a pretty rude awakening. I walked up to the paddock and here was a bus over. I thought it was just somebody holidaying in a bus, like just a couple of people using it as a camper kind of thing."

His initial response was to get back to the house to call for an ambulance before heading back to the scene for a closer look.

When he got there one of the survivors asked him if he had called for an ambulance. I said to them "yes, I've called for one. But then I found out there were 20 to 30 people on the bus, so I went straight back and called the ambulance again and told them, and the police, that they had better bring a few more with them because there was a bus full of people."

The scene that many from the Clarence Valley will never forget. The Cowper Bus crash which occurred in the early hours of October 20, 1989.
The scene that many from the Clarence Valley will never forget. The Cowper Bus crash which occurred in the early hours of October 20, 1989. The Daily Examiner Archives

As a peeking sun began to illuminate the horror that had transformed the picturesque countryside to scrapyard within a few brutal seconds, Alan's otherwise average day had gone to hell.

Daily Examiner reports at the time describing the screaming and cries for help Alan and his wife Michelle were confronted with while Alan tried to comfort survivors, their front paddock earmarked as a makeshift morgue by emergency workers as they went about their grim task.

"I didn't go to work, I helped where I could. I felt sorry for the professionals, the ambulance men and police, because when they arrived they didn't know where to start. The SES. It was a pretty major thing for them to deal with. They did a marvellous job but it was pretty hard on all of them."

Alan said he helped where he could, opening up a couple of his fences to get vehicles in and out, while he navigated the media demands being placed on him by being caught up in a situation he had no control over.

"It was all a bit graphic with them, people coming in helicopters for the news and that. They weren't there when it was all full on. They they turned up later. I felt they were fairly barbaric asking the questions like... it's like they were looking for the gory stuff and that was terrible.

Alan said some of locals involved said things they regretted because "we were a bit in shock ourselves".

"We said things without thinking, you know, and they (media) sort of drew it out of you pretty quick. Some things got published by the big news stations that a couple of us who lived around here weren't real happy with."

Alan recalled how easy it was for things to be misinterpreted among the chaos at the time, the local media also responsible for causing him unwarranted grief.

Grafton Daily Examiner, October 21, 1989.
Grafton Daily Examiner, October 21, 1989. Grafton Daily Examiner Archives

"I had a little tizzle with The Daily Examiner at the time. I was up the road later that day with my daughter (Natalie), about 2km up the road at a friend's place. She was three years old, and they came and interviewed me there and took a picture of us."

He said when the image was published the caption read "this is Alan Bowling at the scene of the accident, which was terrible because it wasn't at the scene."

"I work for a lot of older people in my trade and I had some of them comment how awful it was that I had my little daughter there."

"The Examiner did write an apology for me later which was fair enough, but yeah, things like that, it just wasn't right."

After Alan did what he could in such hellish conditions he was left alone, his last task of the day to repair and reinstate all the fencing he had to take down, the practical, invisible work that still needs to take place amidst the death and suffering that consumed that day. (He later received a letter from the police thanking him for his assistance during the rescue and recovery operations).

Although Alan is the type of person not to make a fuss, he said he wasn't silly enough to think that once all the fences went back up it would mean business as usual for him, his easy-going nature still had him seek out some support via a trusted confidant.

"I went to see my friend Reverend Duncan Blakey, the Presbyterian minister. He's a wonderful man, and he said to me, no you're going alright. It was a good. I just talked to him for a bit and I was right.

"I'm born on the land, but I'm not saying it was easy for me. It was easier for some of us (to cope with) than others. I just felt for the people directly involved, it was just very sad."

Alan made himself scarce in the years and decades that followed, purposely avoiding memorials and commemorations, reminders of that terrible day up until a few years ago when the community marked the 25th.

During that whole time he did keep in touch with one person, acknowledging the remarkable strength of Mrs Angela Ormesher, who survived the crash but lost five members of her family including her children.

"She was brilliant. I'd give her 100/100 for getting the new highway. She pushed and pushed... because she lost most of her family that day."

He said Angela had asked him to put a cross up where it happened but he realised you couldn't just put a memorial there because it was on the main road. "I understood that."

"There was also a chap that lost his daughter, from Wyong. He wanted to put a big rock in, put a plaque on it and I said, by all means, yes. So I helped him cement that in. There is also a cross there and somebody puts flowers on it now and then. Angela's not here anymore (Mrs Ormesher died in 2016) but she used to come every year and leave flowers on it. The memory is always there. It always will be."

Alan said he was "very pleased" about the Pacific Highway finally being moved away from his property.

"The road's not suitable by any means. It's a shame it's taken this long, but it is happening which is a good thing."

At the time of the Cowper crash there was another moment that Alan said still haunts him "a terrible comment" made to his wife while trying to make sense of the tragedy that had just been confronted with.

"I tried to tell her it could have been worse; it could have been two buses. A couple of months later I woke up to the radio and the news about Kempsey. I just couldn't believe what I was hearing."



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