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One false move leads to a world of pain and grief

Fed and ready for the final leg, the clan from country NSW was back on the road to Kalgoorlie.

There were 10 of them altogether, five adults and five kids, packed into a van on Friday, October 5, 2012 — day two of their WA adventure.

They hailed from Parkes, a town best known for its radio telescope and Elvis festival.

After a pit stop in Southern Cross, Aidan Ashcroft was behind the wheel of the Toyota HiAce. It was nearly 7.30pm.

He would have rather been behind the wheel of his beloved HQ Monaro, but that could wait.

The car had been trucked over from NSW for the Monaro Nationals in Busselton later that month.

Make Your Zero Excuses Pledge

Four weeks in the West was a welcome break for Mr Ashcroft, even if there were five passengers aged under five behind him.

He had help from his wife Melissa, her sister Amanda Hamilton — the mother of two of the children — and her parents, Richard and Karen Hamilton.

About 150m away, travelling in the opposite direction in his Falcon on the Great Eastern Highway, 23-year-old mine worker Diego Codyre was looking forward to a weekend in Perth.

He had two housemates for company — Kalgoorlie local Curtis Watchorn and young father Luke Adams, who had moved to the Goldfields from New Zealand a few months earlier.

Like Mr Adams, Mr Codyre was born in the Land of the Long White Cloud. His family relocated to Queensland as a child.

There, he developed into a solid rugby league prospect and eventually left home to play in the Canberra Raiders under-20 side.

He had moved to Kalgoorlie for a change of scenery but he still found time to play a bit of rugby with the Goldfields Titans.

Stuck behind a truck with hundreds of kilometres left to cover, Mr Codyre decided to overtake.

A set of headlights appeared on the road ahead.

The horrific crash near Southern Cross.The horrific crash near Southern Cross.
Camera IconThe horrific crash near Southern Cross.Picture: Supplied

THE CRASH

“What the hell?”

They were the last words Mrs Ashcroft heard from her husband.

Mr Ashcroft swerved off the road at the last moment in an attempt to avoid the collision.

Mr Codyre did the same thing.

The carnage that followed was a blur of death and twisted metal.

Mr Ashcroft took the brunt of the impact and died instantly.

All of his passengers, except for his three-year-old niece, Liliani, were seriously injured.

The two men in the front of the Falcon, Mr Codyre and Mr Adams, died at the scene.

Mr Watchorn, in the middle rear seat, was unconscious and badly hurt.

He had a fractured vertebra, a broken arm, broken ribs, a punctured lung and two dislocated elbows, among other things.

His seatbelt had contributed to some of those injuries but it had also saved his life.

He regained consciousness briefly once or twice after the collision but his memories are scattered.

“I was looking around going, ‘Oh, that’s right. I was in a car accident’,” he said.

“I saw the two in the front and they were looking at each other. I thought they were just on their mobile phones.

“I thought they were awake or something and then I just passed out.”

The van’s horn was jammed and blaring across the dark, anonymous stretch of highway 10km out of Southern Cross.

In the HiAce, Mrs Ashcroft had a punctured lung, a broken rib and an injured shoulder.

Others were worse off than her, particularly her mother.

She could not see her husband.

“There was an incredible bang as the other car hit us,” Mrs Ashcroft said.

“The impact was so intense. It took a minute to realise what had happened.”

Mrs Ashcroft turned her head to see her 62-year-old father out of his seat and walking through the vehicle, despite the damage to his lower back.

Mark and Jo-Anne McCullagh.Mark and Jo-Anne McCullagh.
Camera IconMark and Jo-Anne McCullagh.Picture: Mary Mills

FIRST ON THE SCENE

Kalgoorlie woman Jo-Anne McCullagh made the first triple-0 call at 7.29pm.

Mrs McCullagh and her husband Mark, a former Queensland volunteer ambulance officer, had been driving behind the Falcon on their way to Perth to buy a new car. They opened their doors and ran towards the wreckage.

“The truck driver was running from his truck in the same direction as us,” Mr McCullagh told the Kalgoorlie Miner newspaper in the week after the crash.

“All he could do was say, ‘Oh my God. Oh my God’.”

Mr McCullagh heard young children screaming over the din of the horn.

With sparks coming from the van and fuel on the road, they needed to get the occupants out as quickly as possible.

They opened the back door and Mrs Ashcroft started passing the children out with her father’s help.

Once that was done, she told her father to help her mother, who was trapped and moaning for help.

She limped to the side of the highway and lay down, propped up against the pipeline in serious pain.

“I could see Aidan in the van. He looked like he was asleep,” she said. “From where I was sitting I could see straight into the front windscreen of the car that had crashed into us. I could see the two men in the front seats.”

In the driver’s seat of the Falcon, Mr Codyre was fatally injured.

Perth man Zach Bolt was with him at the end. “The driver was alive when we got there,” Mr Bolt said. “He and I knew that he was dying. There was no movement. He was pinned by the car and taking his last breaths.

“That particular scene has stayed with me for a very long time.”

Mr Bolt had been on his way to Kalgoorlie for the weekend with a friend when he saw a truck with its hazard lights flashing.

Once he knew the men in the front of the sedan were gone, he turned his attention to Mr Watchorn.

“Somehow, the seat had launched forward and trapped his arm behind it,” he said.

“I tried to keep him talking and keep him awake.

“He kept asking about his friends in the front seat but I didn’t want him to go into a panic. I wanted to keep him calm and keep him awake.”

St John volunteer Gary Kenward.St John volunteer Gary Kenward.
Camera IconSt John volunteer Gary Kenward.Picture: Michael Wilson

EMERGENCY RESPONSE

As those first people on the scene did what they could in horrific circumstances, the WA emergency response network reacted.

Southern Cross man Gary Kenward was in the first volunteer ambulance crew to arrive.

The three men were already dead, but there were another 10 people needing attention.

He made it a priority to get the children away from the destruction and to the nurses at Southern Cross Hospital.

There was no doctor in town at the time.

Volunteer firefighters used the jaws of life to free Mr Watchorn.

“By this stage, another ambo had turned up and we were fully into triage,” Mr Kenward said.

“I left someone else to cover up the deceased and went about extricating the most seriously injured via normal triage ‘sieve and sort’.” Five ambulance crews transported the survivors to hospital, where a State Telehealth Service doctor provided guidance by video link.

Community paramedic Joe Cuthbertson had been dispatched from Merredin, 100km away.

Mr Cuthbertson had previously worked as a paramedic on the RAC Rescue helicopter, so he had more experience than most with road trauma.

He decided he would be of most use at the hospital.

“I remember walking through the doors at the ED and there were a number of patients in there already,” Mr Cuthbertson said. “You could see there were some significant injuries. Some were still being pulled out of cars.

“With that amount of patients and the lack of resources in a remote area, it’s always a bit chaotic to start with but you just dig in and stick it out.”

Dr Hakan Yaman was on the first RFDS plane to the scene of a horror triple fatality.Dr Hakan Yaman was on the first RFDS plane to the scene of a horror triple fatality.
Camera IconDr Hakan Yaman was on the first RFDS plane to the scene of a horror triple fatality.Picture: Michael Wilson

HELP FROM THE AIR

About 20 minutes after Mrs McCullagh made the initial triple-0 call, the Royal Flying Doctor Service was mobilised.

The doctor on the first RFDS plane was Dr Hakan Yaman, who was picking up a patient in Bunbury when he was diverted to Southern Cross.

Like some of the other responders, he had young children around the same age as those he saw in the arms of volunteers.

Their parents and grandparents were in neck braces, unable to comfort them. The worst injured was Karen Hamilton, 63, who had serious internal injuries as well as broken vertebrae and broken ribs.

It quickly became clear more RFDS planes would be required to get everyone to Perth.

Dr Yaman had to tell Mrs Ashcroft her husband had died, though he suspects she might have already known.

“She apologised to me afterwards for creating a scene that was so confronting,” Dr Yaman said. “I think she got distressed that the ambulance officers had to see such a difficult thing. She was such a wonderful person.”

In all, four RFDS planes were sent to Southern Cross.

Major crash detectives arrived by air at midnight.

Det-Sen. Const. Barclay Bailey was the investigating officer.

He was struck by the extent of the damage to the van and the fact only one occupant had died. It was too dark to do a proper examination of the crash scene so he went to the hospital.

One of his first tasks would be notifying next-of-kin — in a sense, a police officer’s toughest task.

The high-speed, head-on collision had killed or injured a dozen people in a split second.

As the response wore on into the early hours of the morning, ripples of grief started to spread throughout Australia and across the Tasman.

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