Two junior police officers who stopped mid-shift on a quiet Sunday evening for a roadside coffee break would minutes later become the first two people at the scene of Australia’s worst bus accident in decades.
The pair had driven into a service station in Greta, near Singleton in the NSW Hunter Valley at around 11:30pm on the foggy winter night.
Driving back to Wine Country Drive, they were faced with a devastating scene they had trained for but hoped never to encounter.
A white bus they’d seen passing the gas station less than five minutes earlier was on its side at the edge of a roundabout, its windshield shattered and its headlights poking through the fog.
Passengers who had been to a wedding that afternoon had already managed to crawl out, smashing at least one through a window, and wandered dazedly over the edge of the road.
Two junior police officers were the first to arrive at the horrific Hunter Valley bus crash
The two patrol officers, neither of whom had attended a “major trauma event” before, sprang into action by directing the survivors to safe areas, setting up exclusion zones and assessing the crime scene and reporting it to the base, reports The Daily Telegraph.
At 11:40 p.m., two more highway patrol cars were at the scene, followed by a general duty car, paramedics, and an off-duty paramedic who stumbled onto the scene.
Six helicopters, 11 ambulances and three ambulance rescue units were sent to the scene.
There were soon more than 30 paramedics at the scene of the crash, along with firefighters, police and other medical experts.
Running on adrenaline, they assessed each passenger—discovering that four had already died of crush injuries—and triaged the survivors.
A man they found was pinned under the bus, but still alive.
NSW Fire and Rescue crews used two-ton airbags to lift the wreckage before securing it with wooden blocks and freeing the man.
NSW Ambulance Inspector Joel de’Zuna, a paramedic with 18 years of experience, was among the first wave of emergency responders.
On the way to the crash site, he was told by the dispatcher: “We have several passengers, up to 40. There are people trapped under the bus.”
He asked how many triple-zero calls there had been, hoping it was a mistake or exaggeration.
“Several calls,” the dispatcher told him.
Once on scene, he helped direct the ambulance response, set up safe areas where paramedics could stop and treat patients, and constantly radioed the situation.
By midnight he had declared a ‘major incident’.
Within an hour of the first emergency calls, all survivors had been freed from the wreckage and were being treated
At 12:15 a.m., two more patients had been pronounced dead, the death toll would stand at 10 by the end of the night.
At 12:20 a.m., the helicopters approached to land at the nearby Green Ridge Estate, where specialist doctors would be met by police to race them back to the crash site.
De’Zuna told them that a woman, now intubated, with multiple chest injuries would be their first critical patient.
One firefighter recalled holding IVs and carrying patients on stretchers to assist paramedics and doctors as they “did their jobs to save lives.”
He asked not to be named out of respect for “ambulance officers, police officers, and especially those first-time highway patrol officers on the scene who did a lot more than I did.”
Police officers reportedly raced between hospitals and the crash site to replenish blood supplies between comforting survivors.
Within an hour of the first emergency services arriving at the scene, all surviving passengers were freed from the wreckage and treated.
At 2 a.m., the last patients were taken from the crime scene.
Acting Superintendent Matt Zimmer, who commanded the NSW police response on the night, said support is now being provided not only to the victims and their families, but also to emergency services.
“Our responders were confronted with confrontational and challenging scenes,” said Act Supt Zimmer.
“Some of them are very young officers and this is the first time they have been exposed to such a traumatic incident.
He said some officers have been given furlough and will be welcomed when they are ready.
“We have people who are in pain and will continue to support those people who need it most.”
The crash site was flooded with flowers this week as a makeshift memorial to the victims who had attended a wedding that afternoon
NSW Ambulance Hunter New England Chief Superintendent Luke Wiseman said this would be the most confronting scene of their careers for many officers.
“The wedding party has taken all reasonable and responsible steps to ensure their guests are safely transported to and from their most special day. Unfortunately, this ended in tragedy,” he said.
“I have absolute respect for the partnership that was formed to provide patient care and ensure that the injured involved were brought to the most appropriate care.”
He thanked all those involved in the emergency response including NSW Ambulance Control Centres, Aeromedical teams, interagency teams including NSW Police Force, Fire and Rescue NSW, the Rural Fire Service, NSW Health, the Local Health district hospital in particular John Hunter Hospital, Calvary Mater Hospital and Maitland Hospital.